Some are so busy demonising Clermont as being a moneybags club – they are well-heeled but, in fact, have nothing like the budget of Toulon, Toulouse or Racing – that they fail to appreciate some of the qualities that led to their dismantling of the Premiership leaders Northampton last week.
Clermont’s player ID, recruiting and player development is brilliant. Yes they buy in a few five star A-listers – I can’t imagine that Jonathan Davies this season or Morgan Parra a while back came cheaply– but in the overall scheme of things they are the exception. Generally they use the EU and Kolpak employment laws to go hunting cleverly for ambitious players from second tier nations – Georgia, Italy and Fiji in particular – or they target talented individuals whose careers have stalled and whose bargaining power has declined. Players from nine nations played their part in victory over Northampton last week.
Georgia prop Davit Zirakashvili arrived as a complete unknown from Tbilisi 11 years ago and 244 Clermont first team games later is one of the game’s best and most durable props. I trust he earns a commensurate wage now but you can be sure he was on a modest salary when he first arrived.
Other Georgians such as Goderdzi Shvelidze and Viktor Kolelishvili have performed similar stalwart service.
For years Clermont also mined a rich seam of Pumas talent, headed by the remarkable Mario Ledezma, and although they wouldn’t have come quite so cheap the asking price would have been considerably less than the big names from the SANZAR nations.
Napolioni Nalaga, meanwhile, was spotted nine years ago playing centre in an outgunned Fiji side at the U21 World Championship held in the Auvergne region. After a year with the Fiji Sevens side Clermont swooped for a comparatively cheap signing – at the time – and he has been a major attacking force since.
That Fijian link is proving beneficial, and, yes, using their contacts, Clermont do regular scout in Fiji itself and hold coaching seminars. That doesn’t take a huge amount of money, just a deal of vision and commitment.
Let’s look elsewhere. Fritz Lee for example. Samoan-born former New Zealand Sevens squad player who was virtually unknown in Europe before he joined Clermont. Then there is Brock James, unheralded one-time Australian Sevens player who never got a sniff of a full Wallabies cap before deciding to join Clermont and settle in the Massif Central.
Jamie Cudmore. The Canadian had played a season with Llandovery and made just a handful of first team appearances during three years with Llanelli before he moved to France ten years ago to become the cornerstone of the Clermont pack. Likewise Gerhard Vosolo who morphed from a journeyman flanker – first for the Lions in his native South A – into a top-notch operator at Clermont.
Consider some of the bigger names who have moved to Clermont. Lee Byrne found himself out of favour with Warren Gatland’s Wales but was still a class act which Clermont were quick to recognise. Nick Abendanon should probably have 30-40 England caps by now but was consistently excluded from England squads while playing with Bath. It was Clermont who recognised his enduring talent and swooped while English clubs dithered.
Meanwhile how many clubs were willing to take a risk with Zac Guildford while Sitiveni Sivivatu was considered an injury-prone spent force who had lost his gas by many when he missed out on World Cup selection for New Zealand at RWC 2011.
He was sensational for Clermont, though.
Clermont are canny. Yes they have money but they don’t splash it around wilfully and because of that they can dig deep and fight off predatory offers to keep home-grown stars like Wesley Fofana, Thomas Domingo and, over the years, the now veteran Aurelien Rougerie.
But finally one other point.
Much as I admire Clermont they have still never won the European Cup.
Like I say, money never guarantees success, a lesson number of malcontents in the Premiership should take on board.
If Clermont finally lift the trophy this year it will be good practice and hungry players that carries the day for them.
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