April 30, 2012
A Clermont Auvergne fan reflects on his side's agonising defeat to Leinster in Bordeaux © Getty Images
Twenty centimetres. In the end that may have been the only difference between what was a shattering Heineken Cup semi-final loss for Clermont Auvergne and what would have been a legendary victory.
Wesley Fofana will have nightmares for years to come when he reflects on that knock-on at the death of Sunday's game which would have given his club a match-winning try and passage to their first Heineken Cup final. Sport truly is a cruel mistress. Notwithstanding the reigning champions' ability to get themselves in winning situations under incredible pressure, Leinster's victory was achieved with no small amount of luck. The early losses of Lee Byrne and Julien Malzieu to injury undoubtedly disrupted Clermont's rhythm too and Les Jaunards will be privately simmering at aspects of the performance of match referee Wayne Barnes.
But if the French side are to be truly honest with themselves they committed too many basic errors in possession on the field and miscalculated badly off it when it came to managing substitutions. Clermont seemed to have a vice-like grip on the Irish province at scrum time thanks to the efforts of Lionel Faure and Davit Zirakashvili and one wonders what went through the heads of both sets of players as they first saw Faure, and then Zirakashvili march off the field on 48 and 59 minutes respectively. Likewise Leinster must have been delighted to see the back of former lock Nathan Hines as he trudged off after 59 minutes. Some will say that age played its part here but Hines' substitution came in direct contrast to Leinster's All Black Brad Thorn, who at 37 years of age, lasted the entire 80 minutes.
Clermont fans will therefore hope that Vern Cotter and his side will have learned a few lessons that they can use ahead of the Top 14 play-offs in a few weeks' time and it must be a small consolation for Cotter that he now has a clear run through to the post-season at the end of May. But given that it is Ulster that lay in wait in Twickenham in a few weeks' time, Clermont and Wesley Fofana blew a golden opportunity to land a first Heineken Cup for the club. The fact that many of the club's talisman are near or at the end of their careers should heighten the importance of landing a second Bouclier de Brennus in early June.
In total, five of Sunday's starting Clermont pack are 33 or over while another four of the backs are now on the wrong side of thirty and it's difficult to see those same players managing another season being able to play to the same standard in both domestic and European competitions. The likelihood is that Julien Bonnaire, Elvis Vermuelen, Nathan Hines, Jamie Cudmore and Lionel Faure will all be bidding farewell to the their professional careers in the next 18 months or so and that kind of experience is not easily replaced.
The upside is that Clermont have arguably Europe's best loose-head prop Thomas Domingo to return from injury, while in Clement Ric, Daniel Kotze, Loic Jacquet, Julien Bardy and of course Jean-Marcellin Buttin, the French side have a stream of outstanding young talent to take their places. The million dollar question will be whether these players can match the achievements of these players they will be replacing, and if they can, how soon can they do it.
Then there is the chequebook. With a turnover (€23.6m) second only to Toulouse, Clermont are these days in a very envious financial position. With the recent redevelopment of Stade Marcel Michelin now completed, the 2010 French Champions have a stadium purpose-built for 365 days per year revenue generation. This is made possible by the fact that Clermont are one of the few French clubs that own their stadium outright although Michelin, whose Cataroux factory is next door, continue to own the land on which the stadium is built. The close relationship is also reflected in Michelin still being one of Clermont's biggest partners but the club has worked hard in recent years to stand on its own two feet. These days the club can count on 417 different partners in total, with Michelin contributing 10% towards the €23.6m budget. Fifty percent of that budget is invested by its private partners, with TV rights providing 11%, merchandising 7%, local authorities 6% and gate receipts 24%.
All of this will of course mean nothing to their supporters who once again watched their side come agonisingly close to their first Heineken Cup final. For a club that worked so hard to finally rid itself of the bridesmaid tag with that Top 14 win in 2010, it seems they have to wait that little bit longer for European glory.
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