CLERMONT AUVERGNE ARE INTO THEIR FIRST HEINEKEN CUP SEMI FINAL AFTER OBLITERATING SARACENS AT VICARAGE ROAD. CAN LOCAL LAD AURELIEN ROUGERIE FINALLY LEAD LES JAUNARDS TO THE PROMISED LAND?
Who are ‘les grandes fromages’ of Clermont-Ferrand? How about Vercingetorix, the Gaul who trounced the mighty Caesar at the Battle of Gergovia in 52BC and who’s commemorated in a colossal flourish of a statue in the city’s Place de Jaude – done by the same man who did the Statue of Liberty – a la horse and brandishing the very glaive with which he filleted the legions of Ancient Rome?
Or – less belligerently – how about the brothers Michelin, whose firm invented the removable tyre and the radial, who once employed half the town, who still put rubber on the wheels of the Space Shuttle and who shift some twenty billion dollars’ worth of tyres worldwide in any given year? Not for nothing is Clermont-Ferrand known as ‘Tyre Town’.
But in the hearts of Auvergnants, even the great General of Gaul and the Men of Michelin are some way adrift of Aurelien Rougerie. Born here – in Puy de Dome – bred here – in Beaumont – he’s the home grown hero who never went away. Indeed if the Clermont Auvergne team was a golf course, Rougerie would be the signature hole.
‘I don’t remember exactly when but I think I am six-years-old when I first pull on a yellow shirt to play for Clermont,’ he says. ‘Because my parents say that I am uncontrollable (it takes him four goes to pronounce this, bless him) so I go to the rugby and when I come back I am dead, I go to bed and my parents is very happy.’
The Rougerie family is royalty hereabouts. Aurelien’s Mum, Christine Dulac, is the deputy mayor and a former French basketball star; his Dad, Jacques, played a decade in ‘Les Jaunards’ front row, once for France, and was part of the 1970 Clermont team that came a grim second in the Top14 final. Known to all and sundry as ‘The Cube’, his were clearly the dominant genes.
‘Well, I did try to get him to play basketball like his two brothers, of course I did,’ says Christine. ‘But it was obvious quite quickly that rugby would be better for him because he was running around the court tackling people and in basketball, well, that’s not really how the game works.’
Vast, fast, Rougerie has the traction of a 4×4 but the handling of a roadster and, in any gear, a sense of direction that always puts him in the right place at the right time. Philippe St Andre calls him ‘the Daddy of the French back line’ a testament not just to his brute athleticism but to a staggering seven years’ experience captaining Clermont where he is, in his own way, the Dallaglio of the club.
‘Aurelien is our franchise player, as the Americans call it,’ says club president, Rene Fontes. ‘He is our marquee man, our hero. He is the heart and soul of the club.’ The Head Coach, Vern Cotter, a stony Kiwi not given to hyperbole, is clearly smitten. ‘Nah, he’s big in the team,’ he says. ‘On the field, Aurelien has a big influence, not just on us but on the team we’re playing against. And off the field, he sets standards throughout the club – very positively – in preparation, in game-time, in everything he does.’
What the local hero also symbolises is the bond between town and team; twinned with Salford, industrious Clermont Ferrand is the bulls-eye of France; squatting as it does in the Massif Central ringed by extinct volcanoes. It’s where Lowry meets Tolkien. Certainly you don’t come here for the beach or for the barbeques; it’s earthy, it’s honest and the lunatics who make the Stade Marcel Michelin a bucket list of a stadium know all their onions inside and out.
‘They can clap louder for a scrum than for an eighty-metre try’ says hooker, Benjamin Kayser. ‘It’s a bit like Leicester. They want us to bleed for the jersey and if they see us doing that they will go crazy. So when you’re out there and you feel that kind of support it just makes you want to do even better.’
Certainly these are supporters who understand the word sufferance. Ten times their team went to the French Championship final and ten times the glass slipper didn’t fit – ‘chokers’, ‘bridesmaids’ – so two years ago, when they finally brought home the ‘Le Plank’ – as the hefty ‘Buclier de Brennus’ is known – it was like VE Day; even Vern Cotter was in tears and there was scarcely a dry eye at either end of a packed Place de Jaude.
‘Heavens, yes, there were buckets of tears,’ says Christine Rougerie, ‘and a huge sense of pride for the town because the team had finally won. And for us as a family there was obviously a huge pride in Aurelein who’d captained the team and who was the first to bring the trophy home to the town. Aurelien’s father never won the title when he played for the team and I think he was the one who cried the most.’
Classy as they are, Clermont seem to have always considered Europe an afterthought. No longer, to judge by their quarter-final stuffing of Saracens, their first win in the knockout stages in four attempts; ruthless on the pitch and raucous off it, it was like watching the Munster of old, terrace and team in complete harmony.
‘This year there is something different,’ says Alexandre Audebert. ‘The players are more confident, more mature and have much more experience.’ He rubs his fingers against his thumb. ‘We just feel something different this year. It smells of – well, I don’t know what it smells of – but whatever it is, it smells good.’
Certainly this is a team that works hard. You get two hours for lunch and a week off at Christams – France is so wonderfully civilized – but that’s it and that’s perhaps why the Good Vibrations this season seem to be almost tangible. ‘Sometimes I look around the dressing room,’ says Aurelien Rougerie, ‘and I think when this team wants to play, when it has 100 per cent heart and soul in the game it’ll never lose. I really feel that. If the whole team is ready at the same moment I think we cannot lose.’
You don’t win the Heineken Cup by accident. Both Munster and Leinster have the scars to prove it and Clermont clearly feel they’ve paid their dues; indeed when the tickets for the Leinster semi-final went on sale, fifty camped out overnight and there were two thousand in the queue by eight o’clock in the morning. Toulouse aside, no French team has conquered the continent for fifteen years; this country is overdue and this club is hell-bent on deliverance.
25 APRIL 2012