Monday 27 January 2020

Clermont's yellow perils have one last Euro mountain to conquer

Neil McIlroy. Photo: Thierry Breton/AFP via Getty Images
Neil McIlroy. Photo: Thierry Breton/AFP via Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Teams that make your heart usually break them first.

Until they finally regained the pennant in 2016, the Chicago Cubs had enjoyed - or endured - the longest title drought in North American professional team sports.

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"The last time," manager Tom Trebelhorn used to say, "the Cubs won a World Series was in 1908. The last time they were in one was 1908. Hell, any team can have a bad century…"

Scot Neil McIlroy, manager of the Clermont side that welcomes Ulster this weekend in a cracking Champions Cup tie at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, appreciates the comparison.

After all, it was not until Clermont celebrated their 100th year in existence that they managed to claim the Bouclier de Brennu - French rugby's highest honour, awarded to the Top14 champions.

Before 2010, they had lost seven finals in the professional era, earning them sport's most unwanted tag - chokers - a reputation that followed them into Europe, too.

In the last decade alone, they compiled a dizzying list of agonising quarter-final, semi-final and final defeats (at one stage, they had chalked up three in five years).

Their magnificent obsession resembles Munster's quest for the Holy Grail, even if their journey may not - yet - be as long and as winding as that of the Red Army.

A former assistant coach you might have heard of, Joe Schmidt, recalls one year finishing level on points with Munster.

"Munster went on to win the Heineken Cup that year. In the away game with Munster we made 14 changes to the team that had played in the Top 14 the previous weekend.

"Clermont still hadn't won the Top 14 trophy, which has its origins in the town. There was no interest in winning the Heineken Cup back then."

All that may have changed. Their luckless endeavours have not, instead following them from home soil to foreign fields.

In 2010, we marched on the streets with the yellow army from McDaids pub to the RDS before Brock James' missed dropped goals allowed the home side to prolong their burgeoning European dynasty.

For Clermont, a decade of magical misery stemmed from a game they should have won but contrived to lose - for our money, their semi-final defeat to Leinster in 2012 remains the greatest European game of all time.

Always the bridesmaid. How long can the greatest unrequited love in European rugby remain unconsummated?

"Well, if we waited a century to win the Top 14, we must know the value of patience," smiles McIlroy.

"All French teams have the Top 14 as their main goal but there is something romantic about European competition.

"It's a chance to switch from what is often tribal, trench warfare, and often not very pretty, into a style of rugby that is really attractive and challenges you in so many ways, from different styles to referees.

"It will always be a carrot and this place will be jumping on the night before. That's what this competition is about. Sharing memories and memorabilia."

They may not always win away but they are formidable at home as they seek to avenge a dismal Belfast reverse. "That's an accurate description," McIlroy concedes. "We crumbled, we weren't hungry, our discipline was poor.

"We were stung by the criticism, rightly, because we looked like most other French teams on a dark and dreary night and we know we're not like most other French teams."

In so many ways, they are a team like no other.

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