A year to remember
June 2, 2010
Clermont Auvergne celebrate with the Bouclier de Brennus © Getty Images
What a year it's been for French rugby. A Six Nations Grand Slam for Les Bleus, dominance at Heineken Cup level, with a record fourth trophy in the bag for Toulouse, and Clermont's fairytale Top 14 win have made it one of the most memorable seasons in recent years, especially coming off the back of a disappointing 2009. So as the summer kicks in, now seems as good a time as any to look back on the last twelve months and hand out les médailles d'honore.
Where to start? Well, as final curtains go, there could not have been a better feel-good end to the season than last weekend's French Championship final. Every man and his dog knew that in winning against Perpignan on Saturday Clermont were consigning one of the worst losing streaks in sporting history to the dustbin. But what was most important was the manner in which they have always tried to play. Vern Cotter's men go out to entertain and three lost Top 14 finals in a row did nothing to change that.
Meanwhile, Toulouse copper-fastened their position as the greatest European club of the modern era by carrying off yet another Heineken Cup. Is there any coach that will ever come close to matching the record of Guy Noves? The tragedy for French rugby will be that those in power continue to ignore France's best coach if Marc Lièvremont steps down after the World Cup in 2011.
For all the plaudits however, there will also be those who will have bittersweet memories of the season. In the bars and cafés of Montauban over the course of the summer, the locals will no doubt be engaging in a bout of hand-wringing as they attempt to come to terms with their clubs' startling fall from grace. Only just over a year ago, Montauban were welcoming then-European Champions Munster to Stade Sapiac for a Heineken Cup tie. Despite losing the services of their coaches and a host of key players last summer, the club survived the 2009-10 season only to be relegated due to financial problems. While the club is working on a restructuring plan, it seems unlikely that their supporters will see top flight rugby again for a number of years. Even so, Montauban will not be the last small French club to go to the wall.
TEAM OF THE SEASON: Clermont Auvergne
It seems inconceivable that Toulouse's fourth Heineken Cup victory could be overshadowed but that is exactly what happened last Saturday when Clermont captured their first Bouclier de Brennus. Coach Vern Cotter's comment that the victory was the culmination of four years of work was apt; Clermont have consistently threatened Europe's finest in that time only to come unstuck at vital moments. They gave an unfortunate reminder of this in the Heineken Cup quarter final against Leinster, when they dominated the European Champions in Dublin only for Brock James to leave his kicking boots at home. No matter. Les Jaunards finally, if a little belatedly, turned up when it mattered, proving themselves to be worthy champions of France.
Honourable mentions: Toulouse, Toulon
PLAYER OF THE SEASON: Imanol Harinordoquy (Biarritz Olympique)
Harinordoquy had a quite extraordinary return to top form with both Biarritz and the national side. Many will choose to remember his 'Gladiator-like' performance in the Heineken semi final against Munster but he has been at it all season for club and country and will be a huge loss for France on their summer tour, having been ruled out through injury.
Honourable Mentions : Yannick Jauzion (Toulouse), Joe Van Niekerk (Toulon)
YOUNG PLAYER: Morgan Parra (Clermont Auvergne)
In Morgan Parra, Clermont and France have found a scrum-half who is set to dominate the scene for the next decade or so. A key player this season for both sides, Parra has the talent to match his sizeable gob, the perfect balance for a top-class No.9. Took over the kicking duties for Clermont when Brock James hit the skids and did superbly.
Honourable Mentions : Alexandre Lapandry (Clermont), Maxime Mermoz (Perpignan), Wenseslas Lauret (Biarritz)
UNSUNG HERO: Lionel Nallet (Racing Metro)
After a quiet couple of years with Castres and France, 2010 saw a rejuvenated Nallet star for the Parisian club in their run towards the Top 14 play-offs. Nallet however, is a grafter, and the fact that he was barely seen all season long is confirmation that the 32 year-old was the vital cog in an impressive Racing pack.
Honourable Mentions: Elvis Vermuelen (Clermont), William Servat (Toulouse)
COACH: Vern Cotter (Clermont Auvergne)
We all knew what his teams were capable of on a one-off basis but last weekend confirmed what many more suspected - that Cotter is one of the finest coaches in European rugby. There will always be those who claim that the previous defeats in Top 14 finals have left an indelible mark on his career but surely that just points to Cotter's achievement in overcoming the sizeable psychological scars at the club.
Honourable Mentions: Guy Noves (Toulouse), Philippe St André (Toulon), Laurent Labit (Castres)
Known for being a guy who keeps his emotions in check, Cotter couldn't help but wipe away the tears moments after the final whistle last weekend. In doing so, it told us everything we needed to know about Clermont's historic victory against Perpignan. A million emotions captured in a couple of seconds by a roving cameraman - quite wonderful.
Honourable mention: It would have taken something special to beat the image of Imanol Harinordoquy, replete with face mask, picking himself up off the ground for the umpteenth time after receiving a rib injury in Biarritz's Heineken semi final with Munster.