THEY have been here before. Twelve months ago, to be exact. Saracens faced French giants in a Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham. Last season it was Toulon, who went on to win the trophy, this season Clermont Auvergne stand between Sarries and the final. No one said it was meant to be easy.
Last year Toulon proved too strong, in a literal sense, for Sarries, who were out-muscled up front, while Toulon stand-off Jonny Wilkinson did the needful with seven from seven off the tee and a drop goal to cap it all. In the interim the Londoners have hired some serious beef, heavyweights to bolster their pack, with the summer addition of Billy Vunipola and James Johnson.
The match could see Kelly Brown, Scotland’s skipper, get an early chance to impress Scotland’s next head coach in the rugged form of Vern Cotter, who has coached Clermont since 2006. The Kiwi has transformed the under-achievers of Europe into a force to be reckoned with. After his eight years in the hot seat, Clermont’s multi-national team will surely want to bid Cotter “adieu” with the one prize that has evaded his grasp so far.
“It would be good for Vern,” says Clermont’s Nathan Hines, who is also moving on in the summer, along with Lee Byrne and Sitiveni Sivivatu, bringing to a close the current chapter of Clermont’s story.
“He [Cotter] has spent a lot of time here. When he first arrived the team wasn’t as strong as it is now, he had to mould it the way it operates now.
“Whether him leaving or not, I don’t think has a huge bearing on the ambition of the guys. I don’t think they are especially doing it for one or two people, I think they are doing it for everyone in the group. There are a few guys who know it is their last chance to win something before they retire or move on. It’s not that that adds any pressure, it’s just a nice way to finish.”
Former Scottish international lock Hines has more staying power than Red Rum. Despite his advanced years the big Aussie has still played more second-row minutes than anyone else at the club, and yesterday’s Top 14 tie against Racing Metro was his 25th appearance of the season. Not bad for a 37∫-year-old veteran. Hines has already lifted the Heineken Cup in Leinster colours back in 2012, when they beat Clermont en route to the final. He insists that his French club is equally focused on both domestic and European competitions, for as long as they are alive in both.
There was talk that Cotter would drag the big Aussie out of international retirement but that seems fanciful. Lock is one position which Scotland has in abundance and Hines’s club career has only lasted as long as it has because he quit Test rugby after the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Hines has just signed a two-year deal with Sale Sharks that will take him to the cusp of his 40th birthday. So, has he made it a goal to continue playing professional rugby into his fifth decade?
“Er, no, I’ve no targets,” he says, laughing out loud. “I’m just playing as long as I feel OK and I’m not injured too much. At Clermont there are no concessions for pensioners! I train every day, I think I have the most minutes in the second row and, so long as I am rolling out for games and I’m not playing too badly and as long as Clermont still want me, then I’ll keep playing.”
Saracens have the advantage of playing this semi-final at Twickenham. It might not be “home” but anywhere is preferable to the Stade Marcel Michelin, where Clermont are on a 75-match winning streak. Moreover, Sarries play Newcastle this afternoon in the Aviva Premiership, opposition which should allow them to rest several key players, although the six-day turnaround won’t help those who are asked to double up this weekend and next.
Clermont have come close to the big one before, only to see it snatched from their grasp. Brock James suffered an off-day with the boot in the semi-final two years ago against Leinster and the entire team suffered from some sort of mental malaise in last year’s final against Toulouse. The “Vulcans” were leading inside the final quarter, when Toulon’s Delon Armitage scored a breakaway try from a freak turnover.
The full-back taunted James during the run to the line and he has been the hate figure in French rugby ever since.
“Yeah, it was a difficult defeat to get over,” admits Hines. “I think the evidence was shown the week after. We had a semi-final the week after against Castres in the Top 14. Some of the team got changed around but it was too hard to get over and we dropped a bundle against Castres in Nantes. If we had won the [Heineken] final the week before I think we’d have breezed past Castres.
“I don’t think we’ll do anything significantly different [this year]. We haven’t really performed exceptionally well away from home this year. We’ve played Sarries away before, two years ago, and that went OK so we’re just going to make sure that we play our game the way we normally do at home, take what we do at home away with us.”
After coming so close in recent years, does Hines think this might be Clermont’s year?
“We just want to get through this game against Saracens, it doesn’t matter what we think really,” is the response. “We’ve felt we’ve been in with a chance these last couple of years and we fell short. We’d like to go one better this year but obviously there are other things we have to worry about first.”
If he is successful, Hines will join an exclusive club of five other players who have won the Heineken Cup with two different clubs.
“It’ll be good but it’s not why you play rugby, is it, to be part of a group of six or whatever,” Hines replies. “I’m part of a group of three in the Scottish team [who have been red-carded at Test level], which is not ideal but I wasn’t going for that either.”
It’s too close to call. Saracens have “home” advantage and will enjoy the bulk of the support inside the giant stadium. Clermont bring the power that all the top French teams employ and they have threats out wide who can finish from anywhere. Twin wingers Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga are, arguably, the most potent wide weapons in Europe.
“Siti [Sivivatu] is elusive and Naps (Nalaga) is so powerful, they complement each other” says Hines. “I’m just glad I’m not playing against them.”
You fancy that pair, and the rest of the Clermont team, would say something similar about their evergreen Australian lock.