Belfast Telegraph

Clermont have enough quality to finally land biggest prize

Tactics: Franck Azema has tweaked his starting line-up
Tactics: Franck Azema has tweaked his starting line-up

By Michael Sadlier

It was quite a party when they got back to Clermont-Ferrand last May with the European Challenge Cup.

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The celebrations were fitting as Clermont Auvergne had taken La Rochelle apart at St James' Park and, in doing so, claimed the trophy for the third time since the club from central France first lifted it 20 years ago.

Sitting alongside their only two Top 14 titles won in 2010 and 2017 - they narrowly lost last season's shoot-out for the Bouclier de Brennus to Toulouse - their success in Europe's under-card competition has been rightly lauded by the club as another indication that they are an undeniable force in both French and European rugby.

But they cannot feel truly part of the elite until the Champions Cup comes to the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Their quest has seen Clermont come up short on three occasions in finals, and they remain Europe's nearly-side having even surpassed Munster's agonising last day misses as the Irish province claimed the trophy on their third attempt back in 2006.

Added to this unwanted track record is January 2016's last-play tap penalty from Morgan Parra when kicking the easy three points against Bordeaux would have put Clermont into the quarter-finals instead of dramatically crashing out.

Now Les Jaunards are back for more and know that Pool Three ought to be theirs to win, just as things worked out in season 2014-15, the last time they were in the Champions Cup mix, when they topped a group which included Saracens.

They put down a marker last weekend by obliterating Harlequins, with Fijians Peceli Yato and Alivereti Raka running riot in the seven-try rout.

All Black centres Isaia Toeava and George Moala also got in on the act to further crush Quins and send out a stark warning to Ulster should they invite tonight's opponents into the game.

It's hardly that surprising that Clermont have made minimal alterations to their starting side for this evening, though it does seem curious that both Parra and Camille Lopez, last week's starting half-backs, are benched.

In their place come the hugely experienced Greig Laidlaw and, rather more eye-catchingly, new signing Jake McIntyre, who starts at out-half ahead of Lopez.

The 25-year-old Australian, who came to Clermont from Agen over the summer, has Super Rugby experience behind him, but this is a Friday night at Kingspan Stadium when the conditions are unlikely to be benign.

Holding Lopez back from the start - he is one of four players in Clermont's squad for tonight who were also with France in Japan - looks a big call for the side currently sixth in the Top 14.

Franck Azema and his coaching team have made the decision and clearly reckon that their pack ought to have the edge with Fritz Lee's explosiveness, alongside Yato's, potentially dominating, as well as bringing a mighty offloading game.

All these factors are also present behind the scrum where Toeava and Moala, along with Alivereti Raka, combine power and pace to devastating effect.

They will be confident of getting more than the two losing bonus points they picked up when last visiting in December 2016.

If nothing else, this ought to be a real test of Clermont's resolve for another tilt at Europe.

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