Murray Kinsella reports from Clermont-Ferrand
THE PEOPLE OF Clermont-Ferrand very much love their rugby.
Parisians and those based in the strongholds of southern France might joke that les Clermontois have little else to do in their spare time than attend rugby matches, but that ignores the many delights the city and its surrounding regions offer away from l’ovalie.
Whatever about the sightly sneering attitude towards central France from elsewhere, ASM’s supporters certainly do invest an amount of passion and loyalty into the club that is unmatched elsewhere.
Loosehead prop Thomas Domingo’s ‘Delirium Café’ is one of the most popular spots around the impressively vast central square, Place de Jaude, while veteran Aurélien ‘Roro’ Rougerie is also the proprietor of a buzzing bar.
Even when they’re not on the pitch, Clermont’s players are a draw.
Stade Marcel-Michelin is a 18,030 sell-out for tomorrow afternoon’s meeting with Munster [KO 15.15 Irish time] – nothing new there – and any travelling supporters who have not visited the iconic stadium before are in for a treat. To say that ASM’s fans generate a raucous atmosphere is an understatement.
From stands that lean right in over the pitch, Clermont’s support will add to the challenge facing Anthony Foley’s side. Indeed, a comparison between Marcel-Michelin and Thomond Park on the big European days is an easy one to make.
Last weekend, the two large pockets of French fans at the Limerick ground made themselves heard, stamping their authority on the evening with their ‘ici, ici, c’est Montferrand’ chants [here, here, it’s Montferrand]. Expect to hear that refrain at triple or quadruple the volume.
Not many teams have tasted success in Marcel-Michelin aside from ASM themselves, although Clermont did have their remarkable 77-game unbeaten run there ended in last season’s Top 14 barrages phase [quarter-final], being deservedly beaten by Rory Kockott’s Castres.
Early in the current domestic campaign, Clermont and their support suffered another blow at home, as François Trinh-Duc inspired Montpellier to a narrow win. Ever since, it’s been as you were for Clermont at Marcel-Michelin, but the air of invincibility certainly has been shed.
A band of over 1,000 Munster fans are sweeping into the Auvergne region tonight and tomorrow, by whatever route necessary. Paris was a hub for many, others went through Lyon, while some will land in Limoges; all travel in the hope of creating a fresh magical Munster memory.
There won’t be too much time to get the tour of Clermont-Ferrand or climb the volcano of Puys de Dome just outside the city. Instead, The Wally Field Corner, The Salvation Jane, The Still and Delirium Café may be ticked off the bucket list.
Clermont’s fans are notoriously good hosts. Indeed, the ‘yellow army’ have extended an invitation to Munster’s famous ‘red army’ to meet in Place de Jaude two hours before kick-off tomorrow, from where they will walk the three kilometres to the stadium together. Mutual respect.
Michelin, the company, remains an important player in Clermont-Ferrand, even if a student population of 40,000 is ever growing. The tyre manufacturer is intrinsically tied up with ASM, having originally created the club as a means of entertaining its employees away from work.
Lessons learned in integrating workers from elsewhere in France, and abroad, into the Michelin family have filtered into the rugby club. Nick Abendanon, Camille Lopez and Sébastien Vahaamahina’s happiness and form are clear signs that the money and time Clermont invest in ensuring new signings feel at home are worthwhile. Welshman Jonathan Davies is an exception to the rule, we might add.
It’s quite the rosy life for Clermont and their supporters, even if there has been almost countless examples of knock-out stage disappointment over the last four years. The introduction of forwards coach Jono Gibbes, a proven winner at Leinster, is part of the strategy to overcome those incidents.
ASM will have to wait a number of months to learn whether their mental strength in semi-finals and, potentially, finals has grown, but for now Munster are in town planning on throwing a spanner in the works.
Just over a week after Franck Azéma’s side plundered Thomond Park, Munster look to silence the city of Clermont-Ferrand.