Edinburgh Rugby may have a record holder in their midst next season if coach-in-waiting Richard Cockerill can pull off the unexpected this afternoon at Stade de France and steer his Toulon team to victory over Clermont, who have raised losing the Bouclier de Brennus into an art form.
Given that Clermont currently boast, if that is the right word, one win from 12 trips to the Top 14 final, back in 2010 under Vern Cotter, then Cockerill’s main task seems to be ensuring that his team turn up for the match on time.
But Clermont actually start the match as favourites after a season in which they have played some champagne rugby, even if they failed to sparkle in that one-sided European final against Saracens at Murrayfield.
It was Alan Hansen who infamously opined that you win nothing with kids. He was wrong about Manchester United and Clermont hope he is wrong about them too because the club is fielding three exciting young players all of whom are in their early twenties.
Judicael Cancoriet is a hugely athletic flanker, Arthur Irurria a big lump of a lock and Damien Penaud a handy midfielder. They have helped Clermont top the try scoring stats this season with 87 to their name, a whopping 19 more than today’s opponents. Little wonder that the match is billed in France as “Beauty v the Beast”. Clermont refer to themselves as “the lastromantics” while Toulon are playing the Lee Van Cleef character.
If you are looking for clues of how the club have played under Cockerill the best that can be said is that they are winning matches, six of them to be exact, which has brought Toulon to today’s final. In fact Toulon only squeaked into the final by beating every neutral’s favourite team, La Rochelle, thanks to a drop goal from the 21-year-old Anthony Belleau in the 81st minute of the match.
In a newspaper interview Cockerill staked no claim for the credit for Toulon’s success but instead he insisted that his position, whereby he knew he was joining Edinburgh, made life simpler for him than it had been for former coach Mike Ford.
“Fordy’s remit was to stay there longer so obviously he was trying to take a long-term view and create a way of playing; whereas obviously for me knowing that I was not staying it is very much play how we need to win this week.”
If Clermont have been the attacking scourge of the league, Toulon have adopted the opposite guise, the defensive specialists who have conceded just 511 points all season (third best in the Top 14) and 46 tries compared to Clermont’s 58.
Cockerill mused on the possibility of Clermont suffering another attack of what he called the “heeby jeebies” in a big match, and he should know better than most.
The former hooker spent two years at Clermont as a player between 2002 and 2004, the only senior club he played for besides Leicester. He insisted that Clermont would start as favourites and he was probably right.
But it was equally difficult to argue with the English coach when he claimed about his own team: “We are bloody hard to beat.”
“With big names and even bigger egos I have managed to coach them and get them into the right head-space and playing space to win games,” he said. “Hopefully that shows I am not a crap coach.”
SRU chief executive Mark Dodson presumably agrees.