Saints’ Clermont mission is not impossible, says French rugby expert

Samu Manoa and Dylan Hartley have been highlighted as key men by a French newspaper (picture: Sharon Lucey)
Samu Manoa and Dylan Hartley have been highlighted as key men by a French newspaper (picture: Sharon Lucey)

Clermont Auvergne are one of the most formidable sides in this season’s Champions Cup.

Boasting a proud home record that has seen them remain unbeaten in Europe since Sale won there in 2008, Les Jaunards are the toughest of nuts to crack.

But that is the task that awaits Saints on Saturday, as Jim Mallinder’s men look to make the semi-finals.

And we thought we’d find out exactly what they can expect, with France-based rugby writer Gavin Mortimer giving us the low-down on this weekend’s imposing opposition.

Firstly, Gavin, how have Clermont been shaping up for this weekend’s clash?

“I wouldn’t read too much into the loss at the weekend, when they were beaten 40-26 by Stade Francais.

“They clearly didn’t have their game head on because they’ve got the best defence in the Top 14 this season, conceding 24 tries in 20 games before the loss to Stade.

“Clermont are unlike other French teams in that they are very focused on winning in Europe. A lot of other clubs and supporters see the Top 14 as the be-all and end-all, but Clermont aren’t like that.

“They are going to be very focused on Northampton and the fact Northampton have so many well known players, England players, will add motivation for them. That will be a big factor.”

Will injuries to key men affect Clermont?

“The fact that Camille Lopez is out is a blow, and Wesley Fofana is said to be out as well. They are two big blows for Clermont.

“Lopez playing for France is completely different to Lopez playing for Clermont. He lacks the confidence at international level but he’s going to be a big loss for Clermont.

“Parra is another who is out but if you look at their squad, they’ve got so much strength in depth.”

Who is the key man?

“Former Bath full-back Nick Abendanon is one of those players who has really taken to French rugby. Some don’t. They never really adjust to the differences and there are a lot of differences, in playing and lifestyle.

“But Abendanon, who is an intelligent guy, has taken to it and he seems happy in the way he is playing.

“He’s very important to Clermont because he gives them incursions into the line not only adding unpredictability to the backline but also another authority.

“The fact that he’s playing so well compensates for the loss of Lopez and Parra.”

Is there a lot of pressure on Clermont shoulders after three near misses?

“There probably is, but not so much by their own media. The French media is strange and it doesn’t attach as much importance to the Champions Cup.

“It’s not being billed the way it is in the UK in the French press so that will help them.

“The fans obviously want them to win and the fact it’s England, it’s Courtney Lawes, it’s Dylan Hartley, makes a difference.

“In the Clermont paper, La Montagne, they previewed the match and they picked out their four key players.

“They call Dylan Hartley a big mouth, who is a great player but sometimes goes ballistic.

“Then there’s Courtney Lawes, who they describe as a self-styled bad boy, and Samu Manoa and Luther Burrell.

“Some French are still seething about Courtney Lawes’s tackle on Jules Plisson at Twickenham and that will whip the crowd up.

“There’s going to be a wonderful atmosphere and you’ve got - with the greatest respect to Tigers fans - Saints and Clermont as the two most passionate sets of fans in their respective countries.

“At Clermont, the fans are very knowledgable and they never turn on their own team, they support them all the way.

“The crowd factor is something Northampton will have to be aware of.”

Are they wary of Saints’ pedigree?

“They got absolutely stuffed by Saracens in the semi-finals last season and it prompted them to change their defence from a drift defence to a rush defence.

“It’s much more organised and there may have been complacency against Saracens last season. They know about Leicester, but maybe not so much about Saracens.

“They know about Northampton, though, and you just have to look at the Saints team to see the class in there.

“They know what to expect and they know it will be a huge physical battle. That’s the key area and the likes of Benjamin Kayser and Vincent Debaty will be a tough front row.

“Set piece will be key and Clermont are quietly confident they can win, but they won’t be underestimating Northampton.

What are the chances of a Saints win?

“I have to say it’s slim.

“It’s slim because of the intimidating atmosphere that is going to be down there and it’s slim because Clermont have got a very formidable pack.

“But if Northampton can match them up front and the first 15 minutes are going to be crucial because Clermont will be so pumped up.

“The French come out absolutely wild and if they can handle the first 15 minutes and sew seeds of doubt in the Clermont minds about the loss of Parra and Lopez, they’ve got a chance.

“I would say it’s a slim chance, but were I a betting man I’d put a fiver on them to win it.

“It’s certainly not impossible.”