Belfast Telegraph

Azema's men out to emulate Toulon's heroics in Europe

By Michael Sadlier

They want this title and they want it badly. Clermont Auvergne are on a quest which has been regularly fuelled by a sense of frustration and not unlike that experienced by Munster for many years before they finally conquered Europe.

Not for Franck Azema's side the almost traditional French way of showing limited interest in European competition while keeping success, or survival, in the Top 14 as the priority.

They have built a powerful squad aimed at chasing both domestic and European success with Clermont's model being a less star-studded, but nevertheless impressive, version of the one Toulon put together in recent years.

And, already, Clermont have stolen a march in Pool Five with two bonus point victories at Exeter Chiefs and at home to Bordeaux-Begles.

So, sewing up a quarter-final place - with a home knockout tie the ultimate goal - should be nearly theirs if they can now do the double over Ulster.

Their hunger to lift the Champions Cup has been gnawing away at the club from central France for several years now and cannot be in any way sated until the trophy is brought back to Stade Marcel-Michelin.

The Heineken Cup final of 2013 can be seen as a logical starting point, as Toulon snatched the trophy away from them in the latter part of the Aviva Stadium showpiece.

Then they tripped up once more, two years later this time at a Twickenham final, when Toulon triumphed again to be crowned European champions for an unprecedented third successive occasion.

All that has only furthered the sense of deep grievance and unsettling underachievement which has persistently stuck around the Clermont psyche and even niggled at their passionate fan base.

Then along came last season and the chaos which unfolded in the final round of group games when Morgan Parra tapped a last minute penalty, under the Bordeaux posts, when the three points would have been sufficient to take Clermont through.

As things turned out, Bordeaux held out and Clermont finished bottom of the group with only a solitary point separating them from winners Exeter Chiefs.

That one has definitely stuck in the craw as head coach Azema has plotted the approach to this campaign.

They could, of course, do with silverware again as their only success in the Top 14 - which they currently lead - was in 2010, though the degree of difficulty in coming through the ultra-competitive French league is considerable.

So to matters Europe and they now come to Belfast off the back of two losses from their previous three Top 14 outings.

Wobbly enough form then, but the big-hitters come out for Europe. Today's side is not too far from their last Champions Cup outing and, as such, looks formidable and particularly so in the front five of the Jonno Gibbes-coached pack where veteran hooker Benjamin Kayser, tight-head prop David Zirakashvili and lock Sebastian Vahaamahina will be intent on doing damage.

Behind the scrum, they possess a potent backline where Parra pulls the strings at scrum-half with a mighty looking midfield combination of Wesley Fofana and Remi Lamerat.

The back three can score tries off any half-chance with the solid Scott Spedding at full-back and the electric David Strettle - who scored a hat-trick in their recent defeat at Pau - and Nick Abendanon on the wings.

Clermont want this job done and emulating Toulon's 2014 victory here would do very nicely ahead of the return game.

Belfast Telegraph

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