If soon-to-be Scotland coach Vern Cotter can guide Clermont to victory over Leicester the French side will have chalked up 75 consecutive home wins under the Kiwi
THE last ever Heineken Cup quarter-finals are scheduled to take place next weekend, before the new European Champions Cup is ushered into this world.
Winning away from home at the sharp end of Europe has never been easy – the numbers insist that 75 per cent of quarter-finals are won by the home side – so Leicester may deserve a smidgen of your sympathy. The Tigers must travel into the heart of France and not only beat the French league leaders (ahead of this weekend) Clermont Auvergne but also halt the hottest home streak anyone can remember.
Clermont are not only unbeaten at home in 74 matches, they have won every single one of those games. This winning streak is now four and a half years old, stretching back all the way to 21 November 2009, when a scrawny 18-year-old replacement full-back by the name of Paul Couet-Lannes scored a try for Biarritz in the last minute of the match inside the Parcs des Sports Marcel Michelin. The world has moved on apace, governments have fallen, countries have invaded countries, the once-mighty Biarritz will be relegated this season, but Clermont have serenely gone about their business, winning every home tie since.
It is a mind-blowing achievement but it could only happen in France, where the rugby culture emphasises the importance of winning at home and is somewhat less exercised about doing the same on the road. To underline the point, Clermont topped the French league ahead of this weekend’s action with eight losses (all away from home, obviously) in the ledger. In contrast the league leaders of the Aviva and the RaboDirect, Saracens and Leinster, have lost two and three times respectively.
So Clermont bushwhacked lowly Bayonne 55-0 at home but lost to the self-same, very modest opposition 18-9 in Bayonne. Other bottom fishers to have claimed Clermont’s scalp are Oyonnax, Grenoble and the less than mighty Begles-Bordeaux. The inbuilt psychology of home wins versus losing away is fascinating although, as Clermont’s Scottish manager Neil McIlroy says, “les Jaunards” thought they had broken the habit. “Up until this season I think Clermont did very well on the road, it was a point of difference,” he said. “We would get a losing bonus and even snatch the odd victory here and there but this season we’ve been poor.
“The supporters have been brilliant and there is a fantastic atmosphere inside the stadium for every match. They are loyal and supportive and having that 16th man helps in those tight situations and there have been a few – that last-minute drop kick or the occasional penalty after the 80 minutes is up.”
McIlroy’s testimony is backed by Scotland Under-20 scrum-half Murdo McAndrew, a Clermont academy player, who called the atmosphere in the ground “nuts”.
Meanwhile, veteran lock Nathan Hines, pictured right, has been ever present in the Clermont second row these last three seasons ahead of his move to Sale Sharks this coming June. “It’s not something we think about when we run on to the park,” insisted the big Aussie. “It’s more a thing in the press. No one wants to be in the team that loses the record but it’s really not something we think about that much.
“I honestly don’t know what is the cause of the long winning run. If you could bottle it you’d be rich! The team started it and the supporters got behind us and they remain pretty respectful of every other side... unless Delon Armitage is playing. I think it’s just the pride in playing for this team and getting these results.” Armitage, Toulon’s English full-back, has still not been forgiven for his mocking gesture aimed at Clermont’s Brock James when scoring the winning try in last season’s Heineken final.
“We never speak about the long winning streak as a group or as individuals,” said McIlroy, agreeing with Hines. “It is just something you read about in the media, so from that point of view it is no burden to us. It’s down to routine. We are a little like the All Blacks in that respect. We expect to win, we are used to winning at home. It [the record] will go at some point but I can’t find anything comparable in sport worldwide.”
Well, not quite, but McIlroy’s comparison with the All Blacks turns out to be very appropriate, because New Zealand are on a winning run at home that stretches even further back than Clermont’s.
The All Blacks last lost a home Test in September, 2009, to the Springboks. In the interim the Kiwis have racked up an eye-popping 30 consecutive victories at home, including in that their run on their way to lifting the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
Needless to say, Clermont’s handsome run of form at home started under the auspices of a Kiwi, Vern Cotter, and Scotland’s coach in waiting puts the long winning streak down to several factors.
“There has always been a history of rugby in this area,” says Cotter. “It’s been very important to this town. ‘Opposition are invaders’ type of thing. I have lost just four [home] matches since I arrived here in 2006. We lost one match [at home] in each of the first four seasons and we haven’t lost one since.
“They say that it takes four years to change a culture [at a club] so maybe it was connected to the fact that we were here for four years before we managed an entire winning season at home. We grew the culture, we’ve got good players and we’ve got good staff, which is important.
“As we were growing the team on the field, they were upgrading the stadium that surrounds it and the two go hand in hand. The new stands are close to the pitch and the supporters push the team on. The stadium developed as the team developed and the players are a proud bunch.”
Clermont’s record inside the Stade Marcel Michelin may seem impregnable but there have been a few hiccups along the way and that long winning run was in danger on more than one occasion, as Cotter recalls. “Last year we beat Toulon with a penalty in the last minute of the match and, in the same season, we only sneaked past Paris [Stade Francais] with a drop goal in the dying seconds.
“There isn’t a lot of competition for first-class rugby in the area, it’s not like Paris, so fans travel a long way to watch games. I think it’s a remarkable achievement in the professional era.”
And so it is, but the only absolute certainty about a long winning streak is that it will end at some point. Leicester Tigers will be reminding themselves of that fact ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final but it remains to be seen how many of the Midlanders truly believe they are the men to halt the Clermont juggernaut shy of its 75th successive home victory.
Saturday, 5 April
Munster v Toulouse, 1:30pm.
Toulouse visit Thomond Park for the first time as two clubs that have a proud history of success in Europe go toe-to-toe. Neither is the force of old, both will fancy their chances.
Clermont v Leicester, 4pm.
Even with Manu Tuilagi back in harness, it will take something special for the Tigers to emerge from the Stade Marcel Michelin with anything other than severe bruising to bodies and pride.
Ulster v Saracens, 6:30pm.
Potentially the most intriguing tie of the quarter-final stage with the unstoppable English league leaders against the form team of the RaboDirect, who enjoy the crucial advantage of playing in front of their fanatical fans.
Sunday, 6 April
Toulon v Leinster, 4:30pm
Another fascinating draw with the muscle of the cup holders offering a giant-sized hurdle to the Irishmen who have the best record of anyone over the past five years. The final whistle will signal the end in Europe for either Jonny Wilkinson or Brian O’Driscoll.