<
>

Clermont Auvergne: 'The Trolls of Massif Central' out to ruin Toulon's party

AFP PHOTO / THIERRY ZOCCOLAN

Mourad Boudjellal once dubbed them "The Trolls of the Massif Central". Back then, the Toulon owner was an angry man. He'd spent much of the previous season serving a league banning order for a remarkable verbal attack on a Top 14 referee after his side's narrow and ill-tempered defeat at the Stade Marcel Michelin. Truculence was oozing out of every pore.

It was a year-long temper tantrum that told us all we need to know about the relationship between Toulon and Clermont Auvergne. They loathe one another ...even on a good day.

To best understand Clermont is to view them as Toulon's polar opposite. One is located a bouncing pebble throw from the briny waters of the Mediterranean; the other is in the middle of France. One is a club comfortable to be seen flashing the cash; the other is altogether more discreet. One has a president who is manna from heaven for the media on a slow news day; his rival is a faceless, grey figure who looks like he belongs in the boardroom. You get the idea.

Despite Boudjellal's pleas that he no longer pours his own money into the club it is a matter of fact - and of great credit to him - that Toulon's rise from the rugby ashes is attributed to his ambition and single-minded determination fuelled by a few spare millions lifted from his comic book-generated fortune.

Clermont is an altogether different entity.

"Toulon - ruthless, pragmatic, and winners; Clermont, jaw-dropping brilliant, pyrotechnical, but losers" Martin Gillingham

The club was created by Marcel, son of the original tyre king, and continues to receive a handsome stipend from the profits on its radials. It has been through a handful of guises - from Association Sportive Michelin to A.S. Montferrandaise to Montferrand and, most recently, Clermont Auvergne. The packaging may have altered but the blueprint of 1911, carved out of rubber, is the same.

And the reason why club president Eric De Cromieres looks like he belongs in the boardroom is because that's precisely where he came from. When he was appointed president two years ago he arrived straight from the Michelin management board having been chief executive of their European division. He started at the tyre factory in the late 1970s and spent more than 30 years clambering up the corporate greasy pole before crossing the road to the rugby club.

De Cromieres' predecessor was Rene Fontes who had previously spent four decades at the tyre factory, starting out as an electrical engineer and finishing on the board.

Clermont's way of doing things is very corporate. Their structure is a model to copy with its academy programme second to none. Indeed, it's only a news story in France when the Jeunards don't win the espoirs title. Other clubs are catching up - notably Racing Metro with their state-of-the-art training facility - but Clermont lead the way having won four of the last five titles.

Clermont have a powerful chequebook - they operate on the second largest overall budget in the Top 14 at just short of 28 million euros - but are discreet about using it. Sitiveni Sivivatu, for example, left last year having rejected a contract extension. Directeur Sportif and former club captain Jean-Marc Lhermet who developed the academy and is now in control of all rugby-related matters made what he thought was a reasonable offer to a player in his 30s but the former All Black had been given the guarantee of an additional year from Castres so took it.

The fanatical Yellow Army were bewildered, albeit briefly, at Clermont's decision to let such a key figure depart. But they know this to be the Clermont way. And though another wing, Napolioni Nalaga, leaves this summer for, of all places, Toulon, his passing shall too be mourned only briefly. A bigger, better, faster and younger replacement, Waisake Naholo from the Highlanders, has already been signed up.

The fact so many marquee names enjoy long and successful careers at Clermont is a tribute to the club's management. But Lhermet, like the suits across the road at the tyre factory, knows that each comes not only at a cost but also with a sell-by date. Last summer, Gerhard Vosloo, Nathan Hines, Lee Byrne and Regan King - all thirtysomethings yet each a regular starter right to the last weeks of their contracts - were let go. The Juliens, Bonnaire and Pierre, fit the same description and are departing to rival clubs once this season is done.

And while you could be forgiven for thinking that rivals such as Toulon do their bidding for new talent through the columns of the newspapers, the Clermont PR machine has a knack of keeping speculation to a minimum. Recruitment is rarely trailed and never on a grand scale. For the past three seasons Jacky Lorenzetti has been shipping new players in and old ones out by the bus-load at Racing while Boudjellal has courted the media all winter with his "Fantastic Four" recruitment strategy for the post World Cup intake. Clermont, on the other hand, have confirmed Scott Spedding and the southern hemisphere duo, Flip van der Merwe and Naholo. Astute, very astute, but hardly on a box office par with the Toulon galacticos.

As a source close to Lhermet told me: "We not only observe the salary cap at Clermont but make sure that we're being seen to observe it." It was a thinly-veiled dig at Toulon.

The damning truth, though, is that since European rugby's arch pantomime villain went all Harry Potter on us with his trolls jibe and other carefully-crafted epithets, it is Mourad's goblins rather than Eric's who have burnt much midnight oil buffing up the silverware.

In the last two years, Toulon have won three out of a possible four trophies - back-to-back European titles and one Bouclier de Brennus. Their only "failure" was defeat to Castres in the 2013 Top 14 final. It is a stunning return. More so when it is compared with Clermont's serial record of failure. In terms of the two main prizes, all they have to show from 103 years is a single French title.

Again, the polar opposite thing. Toulon - ruthless, pragmatic, and winners; Clermont, jaw-dropping brilliant, pyrotechnical, but losers.

For Clermont, the fear of failure this Saturday is more acute than ever before. Typically, Boudjellal ramped it up this week when he made the dubiously sincere confession that Clermont have been the best team in the competition and fully deserve to win the final. "They are the undisputed favourites," he sighed. "They owe it to their city, their fans, they owe it to themselves."

Boudjellal's loving it, isn't he?