The Mental

Were Clermont the better team in Saturday’s HEC final? Yes, no doubt – they dominated possession, territory and scoring chances. Did they deserve to win the game? Hmmmm, not so sure about that one.

Watching the game on Saturday, we’ve never been as deflated as we were at the full-time whistle – like most neutrals, we were cheering heartily for the Auvergnats. Clermont are a most likeable bunch – led by fine upstanding men like Julien Bonnaire and Aurelien Rougerie, and guided by the little genius Morgan Parra. And their fans are the best in Europe, bar none. But, and there is a massive but, they showed zero mental resolve when it counted, and crumbled visibly as the pressure mounted.  There is something almost Shakesperian, or even out of ancient Greek mythology about this Clermont side.  They are European rugby’s Achilles.  An extraordinary team with the ability to crush all-comers, but with a fatal weakness – when it comes to the crunch they don’t know how to win.

Shortly after Jonny Wilkinson’s penalty to bring the game to 15-9, Clermont had a knock-on advantage in their own half. What they did was shuttle the ball back and forth, recycling dirtier and dirtier ball, and panicking as the Toulon line went nowhere. The ball came back to Wes Fofana, who finally broke through (losing the advantage) … but got himself slightly isolated and turned over (in a brilliant piece of play), from which that horrible man ran in an easy turnover try.

On the same weekend in which that master of clutch situations, Ronan O’Gara, announced his retirement, it’s worth asking what would he have done? Welted the ball away to relieve the pressure – or tried a cheeky dink over the top, knowing you’ll get the ball back if it doesn’t work out. Certainly not faffed around and panicked, that’s for sure.

And this was when they were leading. It’s tempting to get bogged down in what-ifs about the Toulon try, but, judging by the pattern of the last 20 minutes, even if Felon Armitage had knocked on Fernandez Lobbe’s pass, Toulon would have manufactured a try from somewhere. And another ice-cool pressure merchant, St Jonny, would have converted for the win.

In fact, Egg found himself in a very strange place with a minute to go – he badly wanted Clermont to win, but he also found himself thinking a team that wobbles this badly during squeaky-bum time simply does not deserve to be champions of Europe. Clermont have played in four massive clutch European games this season – the two versus Leinster, the semi-final against Munster, and the final. In three of those games, they did their utmost to lose – squeezing out a win at home against a patched-up Leinster team, scraping past an inferior Munster team, and finally losing to the disciplined but limited Toulon. Only in the Aviva, when the pressure was largely on Leinster as the home side, did they play freely and with ice in their veins.

The sight of Rougerie, Parra and James on the bench, helpless as the woeful David Skrela repeatedly took the ball into contact, put us in mind of the New Zealand-France game in RWC07 – then it was Carter, Kelleher and Collins sitting ashen-faced as New Zealand managed to lose a game they dominated.  It seemed they knew the game was lost even when it could still be won.  Even Rougerie’s comments after the game – he said that Clermont came within one point of something special – did not sound like those of a serial winner.  Would Ronan O’Gara, or Brian O’Driscoll, or Rory Best say such a thing after a defeat like that?

This is a pattern with Clermont, dating back many years in Europe – the RDS in 2010 when les Jaunards lost a game they all but won was simply the most memorable. Until now anyway. Vern Cotter has ambitions to go back to New Zealand and angle for a Super Rugby job, and eventually the All Black one – but for all his success in Clermont, they are missing a major trait of winners – the mental. His substitutions of the halves were disastrous – how he thought serial loser Skrela (now possessor of 3 HEC silver medals with 3 different teams) was a better option than Brock James, even acknowledging James’ history in Dublin, is beyond us.

The sad truth is that Clermont didn’t show the kind of character that champions do. Which is an awful shame. Toulon (with the exception of that awful individual) did, and that’s why they won the game.

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  1. I felt much the same as you as i watched Clermont implode as I have grown to admire them and their fans over the epic 6-match series with Leinster.

    My take on this is that Cotter is the problem. In a pre-match interview on Sky on saturday he looked distracted, vacant and frankly sh*t scared. These traits were then oh so evident in his team in the 2nd half of the 2nd half.

    I am very gald we got the other half of the coaching duo!

  2. Michael

     /  May 20, 2013

    Delon Armitage.

    C u next Tuesday…

    • Leinsterlion

       /  May 20, 2013

      I agree but his mocking of Brock James as he crossed the line was hilarious.

  3. Toulon’s defence deserves more credit. As you say, Clermont had plenty of territory and possession – but, for the most part, their opponents were not only able to deal with the assaults, but did so without conceding penalties.

    The flip-side is as you say: Clermont couldn’t close it out. They had plenty of chances, but no cigar. Are they the best team in Europe? In my view, yes, but the best team doesn’t always win the trophies on offer. Were they the best team on the day? It’s hard to argue that they were, IMO.

    Skrela has never given me confidence, and I’ve always been happy to see his name in a French squad when they’re going to play Ireland, but he can hardly be blamed for losing a match in which his team were behind and he came on with only a few minutes to go (and he’s also won a Heineken Cup, I believe, not just lost three finals). Brock James, at the time he came on, was not looking like a match-winner either. Neither is a really top class fly half – and if Skrela is a serial loser, isn’t James? – and perhaps that’s what CA are missing?

    Removing Parra made no sense whatsoever.

    • Clermont apparently expressed an interets in Jonny Sexton, but didn’t get too involved because they felt they would be being used as a third bidder. They must be absolutely kicking themselves after seeing him sign for Racing.

      • They will be, but from a recent interview with Sexton it seems he was wow-ed by the new RM facilities, and from then on it was only going to be Paris if he left Dublin (plus, there’s a real question of lifestyle choices beyond rugby when considering such a move – the most eulogised city in the world, or the Michelin factory?); also, Racing have enormous amounts of cash, and this will be the chairman’s second attempt at building a conquering outfit.

        The money doesn’t always work – while there’s Toulon, there’s also Bayonne… with RM somewhere in between the two – but given the new signings I think this is a proper reboot and the aim is to be at the top of the pops both at home and in Europe (otherwise I don’t think Sexton would have been interested) which means that Clermont’s main selling point above RM – competing for trophies – is less seductive than it might have been.

        That said, if he’d gone to Clermont it’s easy to see how they could slot him straight in and get better immediately – it would have added a whole new dimension to CA.

        It’s going to be very interesting for the main French teams next year.

  4. Fancy Toulon now for the Top14 as well, Clermont mentally crushed after this defeat and it may take them some time to recover. Clermont’s faffing around rather than go for a DG was frustrating to watch, that said though you have to admire the incredible defense and discipline of Toulon at the breakdown. I’m glad for Wilko though, he’s been a class No.10 for more than a decade now

  5. This piece sums up my feelings. Clermont just have no bottle for the big games. Looked shaky in the second half against Munster too. I think Cotter said afterwards that Rougerie and Parra couldn’t play on with the injuries they were carrying, but as you say, James should have stayed on. Cotter hasn’t trusted Skrela at all this season, so why in the last few minutes of a final when you’re behind? Not just the players who need to improve their mental.

    Toulon were deserving winners. Their defence was excellent against the best attacking team in Europe. I thought their work at the breakdown in particular was incredible. They recognised Rolland’s willingness to award penalties for holding on, as well as Clermont runners’ tendancy to get a tiny bit isolated, and carried out a game plan to perfection at the rucks. I’m still gutted for Clermont though.

    • Seconded, this piece really hits the nail on the head.

      That said, I’d stress the impact that Rolland had on the game overall. There was a period of time a couple of years ago when referees were seemingly instructed that they needed to see a very clear release by the tackler of the tackled player before he could contest for the ball on the floor (which led to the spectacle of the likes of O’Driscoll and McCaw whipping their hands up in the air and then bringing them back down to contest so they looked a little like a snake pouncing on some unfortunate prey). I don’t know whether this has been de-emphasised across the board, but if Rolland was willing to award penalties for the tackled player holding on, he was conversely completely unwilling to award penalties for the tackled player not releasing before contesting. It was a constant feature, and seeing how Clermont had a whopping 68% possession, it meant Toulon were given licence to slow Clermont’s ball down all day long, which they did extremely effectively. A penalty or two for this could have swung such a tight game, as could more consistently quick ball for Clermont.

      All that said, they had the chances to close it out in spite of Rolland’s defence-friendly interpretations, and they didn’t. Cotter is clearly an outstanding coach, but you would question his ability to inculcate a winning mentality in a team. Either that, or he simply doesn’t have enough winners in his team, where Toulon is littered with them. With intangibles, it’s hard to call.

  6. Simon Farrell (@SFarrell_5)

     /  May 20, 2013

    Clermont’s confidence deserted them once Armitage went over. I’m still in two minds if James could have done more to stop him or if he was simply outpaced but heads dropped once that score came, and the signs were everywhere. The noise in the stadium dropped dramatically as even the fans started to lose hope – the fans sensed looming defeat as much as those on the pitch. Those on the bench sat with head in hands and a luck of glum resignation where as I would have been expecting both fans and players alike to be on their feet exhorting one last push.

    With confidence gone composure soon fled as well and a real lack of on-pitch leadership was evident. If Irish teams have a cohort of leaders in both pack and backs Clermont seemed dependent on Parra to tell them where to go and what to do, and were rudderless for the last 10. What was sub hooker Ti’i Paulo doing out on the right wing for practically his whole time on the pitch? Meanwhile King and Skrela are trying to truck up dirty ball into a set defence. No-one knew what to do in those last ten minutes aside from a half hearted DG attempt. Much like Egg I went to the game to support Clermont but found myself begrudgingly happy for Toulon at the end. Will Clermont recover their ‘mental’ for the French run in? I wouldn’t be so sure….

  7. Sound Steve

     /  May 20, 2013

    I have to say I don’t agree with the sentiment of this article at all. Toulon’s defence and defensive rucking was excellent throughout and it was fitting that they got their try from a turnover. Their defence in the last 15 mins was the picture of patience and discipline. Added to that, Clermont lost Parra, their master conductor.

    I think you have to appreciate how fine the margins are at this level. It wasn’t a complete capitulation. All it would have taken for us to be talking about a magnificent Clermont win would be one loose hand in a ruck from the Toulon side in that last 15. To say that a team, packed with cup-winners, that in the same season went to the European champions and absolutely crushed them in front of a packed house, lacks bottle is just wrong.

    Likewise the ABs losing in ’07 was more a function of an unbelievable defensive effort, two injured 10s and a forward pass.

  8. Yossarian

     /  May 20, 2013

    In defence of the coach Parra was injured as was Rougerie.I think the feeling was with James he was in the 22″ and not looking to take a drop goal so the coach made the call his 10 had bottled it(like the quarters years ago)and Skrela was a better option. Bizarre for a league that is so found of the drop goal they didn’t seem to know how to manufacture the right position-as ROG pointed out it was static ball they eventually had the go off that was easily blocked down.
    Gutted for Claremont,an ageing squad who might not get a go like this again.You could argue even the game in Aviva they coughed up the bonus point that could have proved costly.Lack an end game,their fans lacked belief, you wonder what kind of rebuilding they would need to change it but when you are that close they will probably look to tweak things.Its a small mental thing that i would have thought all the near misses and accumulated experience would have given them that tougher edge.

    as for Armitage,disgusted.

    • Connachtexile

       /  May 20, 2013

      Felon Armitage lived up to his name again and showed what a classy guy he is.

      Was gutted for Clermont but for all their talent they’re missing an out an out forward pack leader like Muller for Ulster or O’Connell for Munster to guide them and a Out-half of the quality of Sexton. Brock James strikes me as the same type as Nick Williams of Ulster a very good player but once he gets to the top, top level of Rugby he struggles. It’s why teams like Racing pay so much for guys like Sexton who had a master class against Northampton in the HEC final a few season ago. Toulon on the other hand had a huge amount of leaders like Lobbe, Shaw and Botha in the pack and Wilkinson in the back steering the game. As an aside I though Giteau had a terrible game for Toulon which nullified their backs to a huge amount.

  9. Mary Hinge

     /  May 20, 2013

    Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. MOTM in my opinion. Wonderful player.

  10. Leinsterlion

     /  May 20, 2013

    James isnt a top tier player, out of his depth, great against the likes of Montauban, Mont De Marson and the bottom tier of the T14 but in the pressure cooker he falters. Have to laugh at your suggestion Wilko or ROG would be different or offer some mental edge. The only difference they would offer from James would be from the tee or if a DG chance was manufactured for them.
    Both of those players havent been able to get a backline moving for the past 5 years at least, both turn inside in the face of pressure and offer zero running threat. I’d argue both teams have terrible tens who act merely as a conduit and to kick points. Parra runs the show in Clermont, you could have Daffy Duck at 10 and it wouldnt matter, Toulon have a massive pack, WOC as long as you can kick, you could play 10 for them. Wilko, O’Gara and James are in the same bracket, second tier tens. There is no need to focus on either ten, they had little to do with either teams chances of losing or winning.
    If Wilko or ROG was playing for Clermont they still would have lost had Parra gone off, Clermont dont need a back up ten, they need a back up 9, they should buy Yachvilli or Doussin as quality back up.

    • Spice

       /  May 20, 2013

      I think you are missing their point slightly. You also under-value the kicking game as an attacking threat.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  May 20, 2013

        I think they are overstating Wilko and ROGs respective values as tens in relation to Brock James and Skrela who are portrayed in a negative manner. All four 10’s are of similiar quality with only differing levels of kicking quality between them. None had any bearing on the result.
        As for undervaluing the kicking game as an attacking threat? I think not, teams based on on a pressure kicking game invariably score less then teams running the ball first. Added to the fact that kicking the ball is boring, possession and handling is king. I dont know about you but do you enjoy playing kick chase, let alone watching it?

        • Your commitment to the purity of running rugby is admirable, Leinsterlion, but there is more than one way to skin a cat, and I think saying that running the ball scores more points than kicking it is crazily over-simplified and can easily be counter-argued by pointing to any number of succesful teams that relied upon an effective kicking game. South Africa since ‘4 evah’ and Munster in the noughties are two examples so obvious it almost feels ridiculous to bring them up.

          To say that the quality of Wilkinson and ROG’s kicking vs. someone like David Skrela has had no bearing on results is, to my mind, absolutely ridiculous!

          • The greatest thing about Leinster was their running game and Sextons but to say other styles don’t work is laughable.

          • On average teams score a lot less in finals so the idea playing a running game is more successful is very debatable. It is better to watch but Clermont would their style for a Heineken Cup wouldn’t they?

          • Leinsterlion

             /  May 20, 2013

            I mean Skrela would have had no bearing on the result had Parra stayed on the field.Parra is key not James or Skrela. As for saying O’Gara and Wilkos kicking has had no bearing on results.. I think it has had a bearing, a negative one, O’Gara and Wilko hold back their respective teams, it is only through their pack do Toulon win games, Wilko could be replaced with any kicker of metronomic status, you could call Paterson out of retirement and he could do a job there. Look at O’Garas most lauded game for Ireland in 04, we scraped by a limited England team due to O’Gara kicking away possession at every turn, refusing to utilise the best center combo we have ever had in Darce/Drico.

            As for a kicking game, I never said kicking rugby is unsuccessful, merely that you cannot do it unless you have a dominant and brutal pack, witness Munster and SA’s decline as their enforcers retire or move abroad. Running rugby by contrast can be played by anyone, handling and running angles can be taught,players can be upskilled to mask physical limitations, you cannot teach a guy to be a 6’4 18stone wrecking ball to fit into a kick chase style of play.

          • This just doesn’t make any sense to me on any level at all Leinsterlion. Do you really believe this stuff or are you just having a bit of fun?

          • “I think saying that running the ball scores more points than kicking it is crazily over-simplified and can easily be counter-argued by pointing to any number of succesful teams that relied upon an effective kicking game.”

            One doesn’t have to stray very far from this article to think of a match where the team who looked better with the ball didn’t win!

          • Spice

             /  May 20, 2013

            Having a top-class kicker in the 10 slot holds defences back a yard or so and constitutes an attacking threat of its own. Eg- King Carlos, possibly the most threatening running/passing out-half anyone has ever seen stood at 10 in an endless series of All Black’s mis-fires (with the most threatening back-line in world rugby at the time outside him). You can have all the skill in the world but if you can’t kick from 10 your team will lose, plain and simple.
            On a side note, to say ROG held Darcy or O’Driscoll back from scoring tries is laughable. Drico notched up the most tries in 5/6 nations history outside ROG and D’arcy has only ever scored 1 international try without ROG at 10.

          • Bowe Gathers

             /  May 21, 2013

            I actually agree with Leinster Lion, a reliance on a monster boot goes hand in hand with an outrageously large and ugly pack (the Munsters, Saffies, etc) and you have to be willing to win ugly. Leinster’s players are smaller and, these days, less physically imposing – compare Dorce now vs the yardage machine he was circa 2006. Schmidt’s commitment to player skill development has meant that Cheika’s bulkier side only got better.

            Plus tactical kicking is BORING and it sucks to think even after the horror show of the 07 WC we still have to watch empty ping pong for 5 precious minutes of the 80.

          • Spice

             /  May 21, 2013

            Except ‘ping-pong’ isnt tactical kicking and very rarely involves the 10. I guess it is something that some people dont appreciate (and that is fine) but a 10 controlling a game and moving his team around the park with a greater over-view is something to behold. If you want just plain heads-up rugby League is probably the way to go. On a side note, Leinster’s game is strongly based around a good kicking 10, Johnny just also happens to be a good attacking threat himself. (Think how much better structured they are with JS at 10 since Contepomi, great player and all that he was).

          • Bowe Gathers

             /  May 21, 2013

            I see your point, I just can’t get massively excited by a well executed kick to the corner, especially when so many non tens have big boots these days (Kearns, 1/2 p, even Zebo) and defensive structures often leave 4 at the back so that these kicks seem rarer and rarer (or less effective – see ping pong).

            In any case the set piece is the thing that’s really the crucial element, and again looking at the Munster/ Saffie model their defensive lineout was second to none. Tactical kicking theory seems to be either play in their half, which is so basic it’s not even rugby specific, or kick to the corner and win their lineout, which is impressive from a line out angle.

            As has been stated, however, this is a personal preference for style of rugby, and I do not want to watch the bleak Munster ten man kick chase game that was so successful in the mid noughties.

  11. Spice

     /  May 20, 2013

    Interesting article during the week with Andrew Mehrtens’ reflections on French rugby.
    The match started with 7 versus 4 french-men, which says a lot or the mentality in the Top14 if you ask me. Toulon are often lambasted for their recruitment strategies but I think of all the clubs they are the shrewdest with their buys. From their starting line-up players like Hayman, Botha, Roussow, F-Lobbe, Wilkinson and Giteau are proven team-players (and winners), coupled with clever investments in the Armitage brothers (wave or not) and Sheridan, etc.
    I can only think the last few years will be detrimental to French International rugby.
    The main advantage of the Irish Teams (creating a perceived divide when it comes to the national squad or not) is the local connection. We are still firmly provinces playing ‘parochial’ rugby. This culture is firmly lacking in nearly all other nations.

  12. That is nonsense running rugby can not be played by anybody. Look at Leinster in 06 the minute a pack slowed the ball down and rushed up in defense they were absolutely goosed…

    Your style should suit the players you have.

  13. Yossarian

     /  May 20, 2013

    first off i would like to say Leinster Lion i actually agree with your philosophy on how the game is played. I think Leinster showed that it can be ultimately successful. The thing is as we are told Leinster have become “the best passing side in Europe” not everyone can emulate that style as skills let them down. i think it is easier to find 6’4 18st guys than players with the skill base to play passing,attacking rugby. “teams based on on a pressure kicking game invariably score less then teams running the ball first.” this might be true but as witnessed Toulon conceded 2 tries to 1 but won the game.It can be effective in cup rugby when nerves mitigate against the passing side v’s the pragmatic side.

  14. So hang on Leinster Lion, I can play running rugby? That’s fantastic, thanks for letting me know, I had no idea. Keep an eye out for me next season lads.

  15. zdm

     /  May 21, 2013

    Unfortunately, I think this match is more significant for Irish rugby than it first seems – this is the first time a team that has purchased it’s way to the top has won the HC.

    This proves that rugby, like soccerball, is open to becoming a play-thing for the rich and I’m not sure that the likes of Munster and Ulster come up too favorably compared to the Toulons or Racing Metros of the rugby universe when it comes to outsiders investing.

  16. don_cherrys_conscience

     /  May 21, 2013

    Guys, great summary. One player that stood out for me, and I don’t think he has been mentioned during the article or in the comments, was Mathieu Bastareaud. In the second half, in particular, he seemed to be all around the ball defensively….contesting at the ruck and drawing a penalty when Clermont were driving and well inside the 22. And, he charged down the drop goal attempt in the final two minutes. Plus, his tears after the final whistle were a sharp contrast to his “can’t really be bothered unless the ball comes to me” body language he had throughout this year’s Six Nations.

    Bastareaud’s efforts and The Felon’s taunting will be the individual things I remember most from this game.

  17. Ronaldo

     /  May 24, 2013

    Gutted Clermont lost the game but credit to Toulon defence. Clermont players looked knackered early on, Rourgerie and Sivivatu looked out on their feet early in second half. Wonderful atmosphere in the ground, the French know how to give vocal support to their teams. Pity it was Armatige who got the winning try, he is a fcekin clown.

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