Playmaker has gained his strength from adversity
Clermont's Brock James has come a long way since his infamous 'meltdown', says Brendan Fanning
The highlight of Brock James' career, it's fair to say, did not come on that summer's day nearly seven years ago when he was called aside for a word by the coach of the Western Force.
The aspiring outhalf had just completed his first season, on the outer reaches of the squad. There's never a good time to get bad news, but bad news delivered so late that you don't have time to spin it into something positive is, well, very bad news indeed.
For James, the message was clarity itself. "He told me that the following season I would be ranked fifth-choice outhalf in the club and that even with injuries I wouldn't have a chance to play myself into the reckoning."
As for the timing, in Europe they were about to draw back the curtains on a new season, by which point all the cast were in position and ready to go. Not a great time to be looking for work.
Still, James' agent managed to find a spot for him in Clermont where Wales' Stephen Jones was signing off and, luckily enough, a deal with another Aussie, Cameron McIntosh, had fallen through. That left Fijian Seremia Bai as James' competition to spearhead Clermont's challenge.
He didn't arrive expecting instant success, but by the end of the season he would be at the heart of their European Challenge Cup win, and from there would drive them towards their current status as France's top club.
"I didn't know too much about the place at the time," he says. "I'd sort of heard the name around Australia a few times. The year I'd played at the Western Force John Welborn was there and he'd had five years at Brive, so he filled me in a bit on the background before I came over. He told me it was a blue-collar town where everything revolved around Michelin and that there wasn't much else.
"I guess when I arrived I was pleasantly surprised: they'd just redone the centre of town and it was beginning to look quite good. I think it's a really good-sized place, about 100,000 – bigger than the small rugby towns you get around France but not in the Paris or Toulouse bracket either. It's a good spot, and quite fanatical about its rugby."
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That manifested itself in their obsession with winning the Bouclier de Brennus. By the time they finally sorted France's league title, coincidentally with Joe Schmidt's last game as assistant coach, in 2010, Clermont had lost 10 finals in all and the previous three in a row.
Earlier that season, however, James had a meltdown which is hitched to his name now in the way the Lone Ranger is wedded to the William Tell Overture. You think of Brock James and you recall immediately his awful evening in the Heineken Cup against Leinster in the RDS. All kickers have statistically horrible events, and three from eight off the tee, combined with 0/4 on drop goals is as bad as they come. The killer image though is of him dragging his heels when it came to stepping back into the pocket with the game begging to be won.
"Yeah, it was quite a difficult period to have to go through," he says. "Having had the opportunity to win the game and not taking it was pretty tough to take."
He recovered. Maybe it was a case of maturing, for nobody gets it right in the Heineken Cup right off the bat, neither playmaker nor team. You have to take some pain.
"Yeah it's not an easy competition and to try and manage it with your home competition as well is a very hard thing to do. I guess we struggled a bit with that for the first couple of years since we got back into it regularly. We might have had a bit more of a focus on the Top 14 and maybe we gained some experience through that.
"Being our first Heineken Cup final next weekend has its own importance but for us the European stage is still quite a big step. It's one of those competitions where you have to earn your stripes and learn how to go about things. I'm not the one to judge if this is the biggest game in the club's history, but over the last few years it has to be up there."
He doesn't accept that a dose of the yips spread through the ranks in Montpellier two weeks ago
when Ronan O'Gara's conversion of Denis Hurley's try dropped over the black spot, making a one-score game out of what had shaped up as a landslide. A year earlier, in Bordeaux, he had been telling himself to take the full minute to convert Wesley Fofana's try against Leinster, only for the try to be ruled out and the game lost. And this time? "We were still quite comfortable," he maintains, unconvincingly. "Well, we knew we just had to get out of our own 22 to start with because they were putting a bit of pressure on us. We'd missed a few opportunities to score and that didn't help. Even towards the end when we did manage to hold onto the ball for a few phases it wasn't as comfortable as we would have liked it. Overall, we played quite well in creating opportunities but we missed out on a bit of finishing. And we're going to need to fix that if we're going to win on Saturday. That's something we've looked at."
And surely it will help that Leinster fans will be out there willing on the Auvergne ahead of Toulon?
"Yeah, we kind of hoped that some of those Irish supporters would get behind us if we got back to the Aviva," he says. "It would be nice to see them out there. We've had some interesting trips to Dublin over the last few seasons. I'm sure that's going to continue next weekend."