‘soyez calme et continuez …’


Clermont-Ferrand is the bulls-eye of France: bound by volcanoes, twinned with Salford, it‘s where Lowry meets Tolkien. And, at its centre, sits the colossal ‘Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Clermont-Ferrand’, a square-rigged, Gothic galleon moored in the heart of the town and cast in rock from the very volcanoes that surround it. Work first started in 1248 – entrusted to the fabled cathedral-maker of his age, Jean Deschamps – and finally finished when the steps on La Rue des Gras were laid in 1902. To save you the arithmetic, that’s a total of 654 years to build one church. This is a town that has long since understood the value of patience and, with it, the meaning of sufferance.

Just why do so many neutrals – me included – feel like shedding a silent tear for ASM Clermont-Auvergne right now? Because they’re so obviously deserving? Because they’re so hopelessly overdue? Because their raucous, life-affirming supporters bleed for their team in their thousands and – more than anyone – give this tournament the very colour and passion that makes it such a rapturous fascination? Well, yes, all of the above, I suppose. And partly – from a purely selfish perspective – because I never again want to have to stick a microphone under the glazed eyes of Nick Abendanon and ask him to find words for thoughts that – even three minutes after the final whistle – are already beginning to haunt him.

‘I’ll tell you what, it’s probably a good job I’m not a betting man because I’d have put my mortgage on us winning that,’ he said on Saturday as he wistfully applauded the team’s magnificent supporters at the final whistle. ‘After everything that’s transpired in the past 24 hours, everyone who spoke in the group, the boys had more belief than I’ve seen at any time in the past two years and when we got back to 17-18 I thought, we’re going to do this. But Saracens showed their class to finish off the game and I’m just gutted for the boys … unfortunately – again – it hasn’t gone our way.’

Clermont’s misfortune is find themselves lost in an age of instant gratification, glib sports journalism and mean-spirited couch potatoes who tweet their sour opinions in terms many of them don’t even understand. It’s also been their misfortune to arrive in European finals at the same time as the force of nature that is Saracens or that was – until recently – RC Toulon. Trust me, coming a close second to either of those is no choke, whatever the nearest troll will tell you.

And – just for the record and so we’re all clear – what does constitute a choke? Well, put crudely – and with profuse apologies to sports psychologists who’ve written solemn, scientific treatises on the subject – it’s a brain-fart with the finishing line in sight and the result – supposedly – in the bag. Greg Norman at the US Masters in 1996 is the one – bleeding – obvious example, one of a string of offences from the only man in golf to own a Grand Slap, in other words, a lost play-off in all four majors. ‘People will say I let things slip away but that’s not necessarily the case, ‘ Norman once said, with some justification. ‘It’s just as hard to put yourself in there with a chance to win as it is to win.’

But – if you’re a serious student of sporting calamity – the gold standard was set by ‘Big’ Bill Tilden at Wimbledon in 1927. The American was no novice; indeed he was a fearsome competitor with – reputedly – a serve so powerful that one of his aces once overturned a linesman’s chair. One presumes the linesman was elsewhere at the time but with Tilden that wouldn’t necessarily be a given.

Anyway, he’d already won nine Grand Slam singles titles – he’d go to win three more – and that year at Wimbledon he was leading the French musketeer, Henri Cochet, in the Men’s Singles semi-final 6-2, 6-2, 5-1 (30-0) when he – suddenly – double-faulted, lost his serve, couldn’t clear the net, unravelled like a cheap sweater and – somehow – went down in five sets. ‘Cochet Turns Tilden Tennis Paean to Dirge’ was the snappy headline in the ‘Chicago Daily Tribune’ the following day. Alas, they don’t write them quite like that anymore.

So certainly in those terms, Clermont did not – do not – fit the cruelest epithet in sport. On the contrary, scavenging, scrapping, refusing to bend the knee to what was – on the day – manifestly the better team, they were still right in Saturday’s final until Alex Goode twisted the knife with eight minutes left. Goode – incidentally – yet again proved that he’s one of the classiest operators in rugby; the hips of Elvis Presley, the feet of Fred Astaire, he either made or scored each of Saracens’ three tries and tormented Clermont in and around their threadbare thirteen channel all afternoon. Put it this way, if you were ever asked to write a five thousand word essay in answer to the unlikely question: ‘Contrary to popular opinion, the England Head Coach, Eddie Jones, is a blithering idiot: Discuss’, the only two words you’d need to put down on the paper would be ‘Alex’ and ‘Goode’.

Yes, you could perhaps argue that Saracens got into Clermont’s heads or, more accurately, into the backs of their minds. Privately – certainly – there were one or two in the black dressing room who felt that Clermont had spent a bit too much of the preceding week defining themselves in terms of the opposition. Look, that could well have been a reflection of the questions we in the media threw at them during their news conferences but, even if it wasn’t, why wouldn’t Saracens get into your head? They get into everyone else’s.

Indeed you read rugby’s movers and shakers writing online and in the papers about how Saracens are ‘threatening to become a dynasty’ and you laugh out loud. They already are a bloody dynasty. My notes and records aren’t perfect but I can’t find a game – anywhere, anytime in the past three years – when Saracens have started with their six Lions and lost. That’s how ridiculously good they are wearing their full metal jacket. Indeed, with all due respect to Warren Gatland, the series the purists would pay seriously good money to watch right now would be Saracens against the All Blacks.

If anything, Clermont – to get back to the point – simply look cursed. As every rugger-bugger knows, they went to ten Top Fourteen finals in ninety-nine years before they finally brought back the mighty ‘Bouclier des Brennus’ and in the past five years they’ve rocked up in nine semi-finals and four finals at home and abroad and won sod all, more often than not, agonisingly so. Wesley Fofana – somehow – dropped the ball over the line against Leinster in the last gasp of their European semi final in Bordeaux in 2012; last year in the Top 14 semi final in Rennes, Clermont led Racing 33-27 in the fading minutes of extra time until Juan Imhoff scored a bonkers, breakaway try and Dan Carter nervelessly slotted what he described on ‘Sky Sports’ last weekend as the twitchiest conversion of his career. Racing took it 33-34.

Indeed when you watch that game back you have to assume that Clermont are not only bewitched but to a point which defies logic. Fofana had a barnstorming score ruled out by millimetres while – at the other end – they conceded a try that had Mack Sennett’s fingerprints all over it. I still have no idea how they lost that game and – presumably – neither do they and that – you suspect – is what might just be scrambling their brains; namely, trying to find an explanation for what appears to be totally inexplicable.

It even gets to your kith and kin. Heading into last weekend’s final at Murrayfield, Jackie Abendanon – Nick’s Mum – was at her wits’ end. Where to watch the game to bring her boy luck? In the end she opted to stay away from Edinburgh and try the Minchinhampton routine that worked for the Leinster semi-final in Lyon; namely, sit through the first half with the neighbours and then scuttle home at half-time to watch the second half alone in the living room ‘chez elle’. Needless to say, it didn’t do the trick, the point being that when level-headed, well-rounded, intelligent women such as Nick Abendanon’s mother start behaving like the possessed, you know you have a hex on your hands that’s going to need a very expensive exorcist.

Maybe it’s time Clermont talked about Kevin. Better still, maybe it’s time they wrote to Kevin at Sony Studios in Culver City, California and dragged him over to the Auvergne for a croissant and a chat. Kevin – O’Connell – is a Hollywood sound mixer and has been since 1980 when he first worked as a recording technician on such baubles as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. ‘You want to know what pressure is?’ he once said. ‘It’s being twenty-three-years-old and up against the clock in the studio on ‘Poltergeist’ with Steven Spielberg sitting behind you. It was nerve-wracking, I have to say. It was really nerve-wracking.’

But Kevin O’Connell’s great claim to fame – apart from being one of the best in his business for nigh on forty years – was being nominated for an Oscar twenty times and never winning, ‘was’ being the operative word given that this year, with Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, he finally, deliriously and deservingly broke his duck. ‘I can’t even tell you the experience it was for me,’ O’Connell said backstage after the victory. ‘As much as I thought I knew what it would feel like [to win an Oscar] I didn’t. It was the greatest feeling in my entire life.’

Incidentally if you’re the kind of person who slows down to gawp at car crashes and you want the full list of Kevin O’Connell’s close shaves, it reads like this: Terms of Endearment’ (1983) (lost to ‘The Right Stuff’);
 ’Dune’ (1984) (lost to ‘Amadeus’); ‘Silverado’ (1985) (lost to ‘Out of Africa’);
 ’Top Gun’ (1986) (lost to ‘Platoon’);
 ’Black Rain’ (1989) (lost to ‘Glory’);
 ’Days of Thunder’ (1990) (lost to ‘Dances with Wolves’);
 ’A Few Good Men’ (1992) (lost to ‘The Last of the Mohicans’)
 and ‘Crimson Tide’ (1995) (lost to ‘Apollo 13’).

We’re still going here. ‘Twister’ (1996) (lost to ‘The English Patient’);
 ’The Rock’ (1996) (also lost to ‘The English Patient’);
 ’Con Air’ (1997) (lost to ‘Titanic’);
 ’The Mask of Zorro’ (1998) (lost to ‘Saving Private Ryan’); 
’Armageddon’ (1998) (lost to ‘Saving Private Ryan’);
 ’The Patriot’ (2000) (lost to ‘Gladiator’); 
’Pearl Harbor’ (2001) (lost to ‘Black Hawk Down’);
 ’Spider-Man’ (2002) (lost to ‘Chicago’);
 ’Spider-Man 2’ (2004) (lost to ‘Ray’);
 ’Memoirs of a Geisha’ (2005) (lost to ‘King Kong’);
 ’Apocalypto’ (2006) (lost to ‘Dreamgirls’)
 and ‘Transformers’ (2007) (lost to ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’).

The one that hurt the most, he says, was probably ‘Top Gun’. Yes, it’s a bubble gum flick but layering in jet engines and motorbikes and all that machismo music was ‘an incredible amount of work, a huge undertaking [given that back in 1986] we didn’t have the automation that we do now that helps us do our job. [That was] by far the most difficult film I’ve worked on.’

And, believe it or not, he still has every one of his redundant acceptance speeches sitting at home in a drawer. ‘The speech has changed over the years,’ he says. ‘But the one constant would be thanking my mother for getting me into this business forty years ago. She died in 2007 on the night of the Academy Awards when I lost for the nineteenth time. She was in hospital but insisted I go to the ceremony because she would never want me not to go.’ So being a good boy he went, he watched ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ walk off with his prize and headed straight back to her bedside to deliver the bad news. ‘She died in my arms,’ he said.

There are umpteen threads in that marvellous and moving Kevin O’Connell story that’d be worth filing away on the Clermont hard drive, not least the value of dogged persistence, which – no question – has become ingrained into the DNA of Saracens. Indeed, after the last meaningful game of rugby they lost – coincidentally, a European semi final against Clermont-Auvergne in St. Etienne two years ago – they adopted the mantra of ‘pounding the rock’ something they borrowed from the American basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs who themselves had been to two NBA Finals and come up short before finally winning at the third time of asking. Or as the great buzzer-beater himself – Michael Jordan – once put it: ‘I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.’

Persistence aside what’s also crucial is perspective. Certainly what sticks in the mind if you’re lucky enough to be pitch-side after a Saracens’ European Cup win is being engulfed by a sudden swarm of smaller Saracens who hit the pitch with much the same gleeful enthusiasm as their fathers. This time round Leo Barritt was to be found sitting in the Champions’ Cup trophy, Freddie and Matilda Wigglesworth were interviewed on ‘Sky Sports’ for the second year in succession – I think it’s now considered a contractual obligation – and our man Dougie on Camera Four – let’s not mince our words – was mugged by Schalk Burger Jnr who hijacked a hundred thousand pounds’ worth of gear and started ‘strafing’ the North Stand making machine-gun noises. Had someone passed by with a jug of ‘Pimm’s’ and a bowl of ‘Twiglets’ it’d have felt like nothing more than a late summer’s evening at the village fete.

Saracens – for various reasons – haven’t always been rugby’s most loved team but with all the kids and the crèches and the feel-good, family vibe, this is an organisation that does perspective like no one else in professional sport. It is – and it has always been – all about the journey, the company you keep and the memories you share and in a capricious business where – for example – the bounce of a ball or the whim of a referee can decide whether you end up in tears by the goalposts – the luckless Benjamin Kayser – or stripped to the waist in the dressing room with a cold beer singing ‘Tikki Tikki Tonga’ – the herculean Billy Vunipola – it’s the smartest philosophy in town. Indeed out on the Murrayfield pitch thirty minutes before the final kicked off, Schalk Brits, Vincent Koch and a couple of others were playing ‘Crossbar Challenge’. You don’t need to be quite that relaxed but it does seem to help.

And you sense Clermont are genuinely beginning to understand all that. In the run-up to the final, David Strettle made the point of just how big the burgeoning family atmosphere is in the Auvergne these days – the Stade Marcel Michelin is knee-deep in nappies – what with Madames Kayser, Spedding, Zirakashvili, Toeava, Strettle and Abendanon having just given birth and three others expecting. The dressing room is starting to look like a Maternity Unit.

‘Saracens have some forty-five kids under the age of five in the club’, says Strettle. ‘I think most of them are Charlie Hodgson’s who’s up to, what is it, five now? What no one can understand is how Daisy – Charlie’s wife – not only copes but always seems in total control and never has a hair out of place. But Clermont’s starting to become the same and I think that over the past couple of years they’ve realised the importance of that; you know, if you want a team to be unified, you can’t just do it with the lads on the pitch, it’s got to be with the people behind the player, the wives, the girlfriends and the kids; you’ve got to look after and include them as well.’

And sacrilegious as it might sound to say so in professional sport – and this is following on from the Saracens’ theory of travelling being better than arriving – is winning truly that important or is it merely – as Kipling put it – losing’s twin imposter? You do sometimes wonder. Is, for example, Peter O’Toole any less of an actor for not winning an Oscar? Do we think any less of ‘The Power and the Glory’ just because Graham Greene was passed over for the Nobel Prize for Literature or of Adlai Stevenson because he never made it to the White House? I don’t think we do.

As she flitted from sofa to sofa down there in Gloucestershire last weekend, Jackie Abendanon would’ve – regretfully – missed ‘Sky Sports’’ half–time interview, a shame because it was her husband doing the talking. Evert Abendanon is one of life’s great delights and – bugger the result – there was no prouder parent in Edinburgh last Saturday watching his son pull off a peerless try-saving tackle and then finish off a stunning counter-attacking try that started a yard from the Clermont goal line. Put it this way if you had to make a choice between a winners’ medal and a father – not too far from tears – who felt that honoured to be sitting in the same stand as his grand-daughter and daughter-in-law watching his son perform such heroics in a European Cup Final, I know which I’d choose.

Tough as it is right now, Clermont just need to refuse to accept that the Gods are just and – instead – believe unquestioningly in themselves and their ability – one day – to win this thing. ‘You might be long gone before then,’ said Nick, offering the slimmest slither of gallows humour. ‘But this team’s got a lot of belief and we’re there every year, aren’t we? So we’ve just got to hope that next year will be our year.’

If nothing else, the laws of probability should – eventually – do the trick given you can’t keep flipping a coin, calling tails and watching it come down heads. The so-called father of Probability Theory was the seventeenth-century mathematician, philosopher, theologian and all-round egghead, Blaise Pascal, who in his ‘Pensees,’ also come up with what history has dubbed ‘Pascal’s Wager’, this being the notion that since no one can make a cast-iron case for winning the Champions’ Cup through reason alone, the wisest thing to do is to live your life in the cast-iron belief you’ll win the damn thing one day given such a life has everything to gain and nothing to lose. Yes, yes, I know, Pascal was talking about the existence of God rather than Clermont’s chances of landing the Holy Grail but, then again, perhaps he was offering his home team a little allegorical assistance. He was, after all, born in Clermont-Ferrand.

16 MAY 2017

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