IN 2010, Clermont won the French domestic league (Top 14) for the first time in their history, getting a mountain gorilla off their back in the process and allowing the French giants to take aim at the one trophy that has eluded them thus far, the Heineken Cup.
After seeing off their nemesis Leinster in the pool stages, both home and away, Clermont will start as clear favourites against Munster in the semi-final, despite the game being played in Montpellier rather than at Stade Marcel Michelin, where the club have not lost a match since Biarritz came up with a late winner way back on 21 November, 2009.
If all the neutrals in rugby were not already rooting for Clermont in next Saturday’s showdown then the sight of Munster’s skipper Paul O’Connell kicking Leinster winger Dave Kearney unconscious last weekend should have persuaded any doubters to don their yellow shirts and get behind “les Vulcans”, as Clermont are known.
The French club has hosted a good few Scots over the years, from Paul Burnell in the 1990s to Jason White more recently and now Nathan Hines, who will almost certainly be starting next Saturday. All of which should persuade a good few Scots to resuscitate the Auld Alliance, if only for an afternoon. However, there is one other Scot who will be in Montpellier in person and sporting a Clermont tie or tracksuit.
Murdo McAndrew, the former Bell Baxter/Howe of Fife/Strathallan scrum-half, so impressed when the Scotland Under-18s played their French counterparts last season that Clermont offered him a place in their academy. He is nearing midway in an initial two-year deal and enjoying the good life, even if things didn’t quite go according to plan in his first season.
“I suffered a fractured sternum and a collapsed lung in a freak accident in a training match,” recalls McAndrew, who is back playing again. “It was kind of scary because I couldn’t breathe very well. I had hoped to try out for the ‘Espoirs’ [Hopefuls, U23s] but instead I have been playing for the U19s. I am aiming for the Espoirs next season.
“The whole place has gone mad with the Heineken Cup semi-final coming up. There were fans camping outside the stadium all night just to get tickets and there is a real buzz about the place. It’s incredible.”
McAndrew bumps into Hines from time to time but he sees White on a regular basis, with the big breakaway acting as a mentor of sorts, offering him a home from home since making the leap from Fife to France was never going to be entirely straightforward.
“It was difficult with the language at first, especially given my position is one where you are calling a lot of plays, but I am getting there. In the academy there is an Argentine, a Georgian and a Canadian, who all speak English, which helps. I share a flat with a young French lad who is learning English so I speak to him in English and he speaks to me in French.”
McAndrew confirmed that Clermont would take all the academy boys to Montpellier to boost their support and, returned to full fitness, the young scrummy hopes to make an impression in this year’s U20 World Championships, which are being held in his adopted country. He may have the local language off pat but, despite signing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe, McAndrew has no guarantee of a place in the Scotland youth squad, never mind the run-on XV, as he concedes.
“The club is through to the play-offs in the junior [French] championship so I have got a one-week camp with Clermont before going into a one-week Scotland camp.
“There is a lot of competition for the number nine shirt at the moment, there are a lot of us. It’s tough out there and I am just doing everything I can to be involved in the World Championships.”
I am not sure of the collective noun for scrum-halves (a chattering, an advice, a sniping?) but Scotland has an excess of them right now, an abundance, a glut, and all but three of those listed on this page are available for this summer’s tournament. Scotland U20s coach Sean Lineen has to worry about who to leave behind rather than who to take to France.
“We have some talented players at nine,” Lineen concedes. “The good thing is that they are all a little different, so you can adapt your gameplan around who you pick.
“The nice thing is that they are all confident players, not afraid to bully the forwards because every side needs quick ball to play rugby. There is real talent at nine, the Scottish scrum-half factory is in full production!”
Lineen has the sort of selection headache that every coach wants but the abundance of talent comes up against a logjam while Scotland only boasts two professional outlets. Too many players, not enough places, especially when the full international matchday members are hardly in a bath chair. Greig Laidlaw is 27 and Henry Pyrgos just 23. Even Chris Cusiter will feel he has something to prove after a wretched run of injuries and, at 30, the veteran of the bunch still has the time to do so.
Several of the youngsters have recognised the problem early and moved abroad, which is the only obvious solution, but only one of them could be boasting this summer that he turns out for the European Champions.
Even with Howe of Fife on the up, it’s not a bad move McAndrew has made. Fae Cupar tae Clermont, not a bad move at all.
Nine Scottish nines
1. Alex Glashan, 18 years old, Scotland Sevens: The scrum-half captained the U18s last time out in his second year with the age-group side.
2. Jamie Stevenson, 20, London Scottish: The young exile was an unused sub when Scotland A beat the Saxons.
3. Scott Steele, 19, Leicester Tigers: The youngster, pictured right, has made two appearances in the full Tigers XV.
4. Ben Vellacott, 18, Exeter Academy: The small but extravagantly skilful Scotland U18s scrummy is one to watch.
5. Ali Price, 19, Bedford Blues: The Scotland U20s scrum-half is in the Championship. He helped Saracens win the Melrose Sevens last season.
6. Murray McConnell, 20, Glasgow Warriors: He came off the bench twice last season but progress of the Glasow nine, left, has been hampered by a bad back.
7. Sean Kennedy, 21, Edinburgh Rugby: Kennedy, right, was the “bolter” in the Scotland squad training for the Six Nations.
8. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 19, Edinburgh Rugby: First choice for the U20s this season, the Spanish Scot has been dubbed “the next Mike Blair”.
9. Murdo McAndrew, 19, Clermont Academy: The former Fifer is back in contention after a serious injury.