THE WEIGHT OF history is so often a heavy burden to shoulder in sport, and in the case of Clermont Auvergne’s tag as perennial bridesmaids the scars run deep.
Defeats to Toulon in the 2013 and 2015 Champions Cup final still rankles with those at the club, with the 24-18 loss to their Top 14 adversaries two years ago particularly hard to swallow.
Domestically, the hoodoo was broken in 2010 as Vern Cotter led Les Jaunards to a maiden Top 14 title after the club had lost 10 consecutive finals — but European glory has remained elusive and in a passionate rugby city, that’s all anyone talks about.
“It’s obviously very, very frustrating,” Nick Abendanon admits. “In 2015, we know we should have won that game against Toulon in the final. It seems everyone talks it about it every year: that this will be Clermont’s year.”
The talk is certainly growing louder and expectation is high ahead of this weekend’s semi-final showdown with Leinster in Lyon, a repeat of the last four tie five years ago which the eastern province edged 19-15.
Clermont’s recent league form has been hit and miss but their sole focus for quite a while has been on European matters and dismissing Toulon in the quarter-final was a significant result for more reasons than one.
Locked at 6-6 at half-time, Clermont finished powerfully to exact a semblance of revenge for those defeats in 2013 and 2015 and ensure there would at least be no more final hurdle heartbreak at the hands of their French rivals this time around.
“That game against Toulon was a huge pressure game for us,” Abendanon continues.
“They had been the bogey team for us. We kept losing to them. Fans were saying in the build-up: ‘we don’t care if you lose any Top 14 games once you beat Toulon’.
“In the month up to the quarter-final, you couldn’t go many places in town without being confronted by fans about the Toulon game.
“The boys coped with that pressure. We dealt with it very well and the boys are a lot more mature. It is almost the same squad as 2015 so we have learned and hopefully we can adapt that to our advantage.”
Abendanon played a central role in Clermont’s journey to the 2015 showpiece at Twickenham as he enjoyed an excellent debut season in France after making the switch from Bath.
The fullback’s individual performances were recognised when he was named European Champions Cup player of the year and his superb try in the final was a particular highlight.
His form has been excellent again this term and Abendanon is Clermont’s leading try scorer in the competition (5) as Franck Azéma’s side charged through the pool stages, losing just once, to qualify for the quarter-finals as top seeds.
Ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Leinster, a game the French outfit go into as favourites, the 30-year-old does admit this year feels different and if they can overcome Leo Cullen’s men, they’ve got a great chance in Edinburgh.
“The way we’re playing this year, we are number one seed in the competition and we beat Toulon at home,” he added.
“We’re carrying in some good form and there’s no reason why we can’t go all the way. We are fully aware that Leinster are a fantastic side as well and that the pose lots of threats in attack and defence. If we can get through this one then we give ourselves a great chance going into the final.
“I feel like the team has a better understanding, better rugby intelligence of how we want to play the game. We’ve got some key players — Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra and Remi Lamerat — who are vital to the team and in great form at the moment.
“They’re integral parts of the machine. If we get going forward then they control things very well for us. It’s up to them to guide us in the right direction. If they play well then the whole team plays well. And if we’re all playing well, we’re very tough to stop.”
That’s the task facing Leinster on Sunday afternoon as they try to nullify the considerable threat Clermont possess all over the park in what will be the province’s stiffest test of the season.
The three-time winners are not helped by the fact the ‘neutral’ semi-final will effectively be an away game with the thousands of Clermont supporters set to create a cauldron atmosphere inside the Matmut Stadium de Gerland.
“Although it shouldn’t be, it is an advantage for us,” the two-time capped English international says of the venue.
“Having played in the 2015 semi-final against Saracens down the road in St Etienne, that’s the match that sticks out for me. Neutral ground, but with 40-odd thousand Clermont supporters.
“When you have a rugby-mad town like Clermont they are going to fill the stadium up with noise and blue and yellow. It makes a big difference to the players when that is behind you. It will be a small difference but I think it will play a part.
“Everyone believes in the team — the fans and players — as we all know we have quality in the team. It has to happen [winning the Champions Cup] at some stage. At the same time, you’re down to the four best teams in Europe. One team has to lose and sometimes that can’t be who you want it to be. We want it to be them and they [Leinster] want it to be us.
“We know having been in a lot of semi-finals and finals in the past that we need to learn from the losses we’ve had. This year, the boys have mentally taken a step up in terms of being able to deal with the pressure.”
While all the talk has been about Clermont battling their own demons and managing the external pressure and expectations, Abendanon and his team-mates are acutely aware that it’s not as straightforward as turning up, producing a performance and expecting the result to follow.
Leinster’s demolition of Wasps has been studied meticulously by the Clermont squad this week and they know, despite their favourites tag and home advantage, it will be an incredibly tight battle between two of Europe’s in-form sides.
“They’ve got players with great skill in the backline, who have a good understanding of the game,” Abendanon says.
“We know we need to be top of our game. Sexton against Lopez will be great matchup. He controls their game. If we do our analysis well, hopefully our experience will show and we’ll put them under pressure.”
During their analysis this week, the performance of Joey Carbery in the quarter-final stood out and Abendanon says Clermont have identified the 21-year-old Ireland international as one of the key threats.
He added: “I hadn’t heard much about him before that game. I know he usually plays out-half but I thought he was fantastic in that game. Great pace, temperament, good rugby head and his ability to beat defenders is very special.
“He’s a young player who has come in and graved the opportunity. He’s one the list of dangerous players we have to keep an eye on. We don’t want to give them any space to do their stuff. It’s nice as a bit of an older guy to see younger players do that kind of stuff.”
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