Clermont’s coronavirus-curtailed Top 14 season was far from one for the record books. But what will the 2020-21 season – one they will enter without president Eric de Cromieres, who died in July after a battle with cancer – look like?
Kotaro Matsushima. Scoring five tries at the 2019 Rugby World Cup will get you noticed, and Clermont wasted little time making Matsushima their big signing. Sebastien Bezy’s switch from Toulouse to challenge Morgan Parra for the 9 shirt is also interesting.
Nick Abendanon. You could pick any one of the 18 players leaving Clermont this summer. A sharp dip in international player compensation from the FFR has forced Clermont to clip its spending wings, as has the need to slash overseas player numbers. Quite the coup, too, for ProD2 side Vannes to pick up the experienced fullback.
“We’ve got a younger and younger group, so we’ve got fewer leaders. We’ve lost Chouly, Rougerie, Kayser, Zirakashvili, Abendanon … leaders in the dressing room and on the pitch over the last two years. It’s going to be important that players take these positions and responsibilities. We need leaders to emerge. To aim high in this sport, you need a mindset, you need to be competitive, but you also need leaders” (Morgan Parra, La Montagne)
Despite what the little general has to say about the experience drain of the past two years – and he’s not wrong – there’s plenty to draw on in Clermont’s squad for the 2020/21 season. Rabah Slimani, Fritz Lee, Arthur Iturria, Wesley Fofana, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Parra himself, and Camille Lopez are the foundations and first few floors of a formidable leadership group.
Nor is Clermont unique in trading in old heads for younger models. It’s a common thread among Top 14 sides right now, as they seek to rebalance their books with a noticeably smaller bottom line in the wages column. On paper, the signings look smart. Sebastien Bezy is good enough to push Parra all the way for the nine shirt, while Kotaro Matsushima adds some pace to an already not-so-slouchy backs division.
French 7s star Tavite Veredamu, brought in as short-term cover for the injured Peceli Yato, should offer some explosive options off the back of the scrum.
Coaching change at Clermont
There’s a key change in the coaching staff, too. Franck Azema remains in charge, but he is taking a strategic step back on the training pitch. He’s leaving the day-to-day running around to Bernard Goutta (forwards), Didier Bès (scrum), Xavier Sadourny (attack) and the returning Benson Stanley (defence). Expect to see him pacing philosophically on the sidelines on matchdays, however.
It makes sense. The coaching looked in need of a revamp. Azema was looking done-in more often than not. When the 2019/20 season was abandoned after 17 of 26 regular season rounds, Clermont were a middling sixth in what had been a humdrum season. It’s not as if they could blame the World Cup, either, for their indifferent season. While 11 players were in Japan, Clermont were running along nicely, and were a solid fourth after eight rounds of the Top 14 – close to a third of the domestic season.
But the expected push-on when their international stars returned failed to materialise, and Clermont stuttered in the Top 14 as they put their eggs in their desperately wanted European basket. They duly reached the Champions Cup quarter-finals comfortably enough, and are at home to Racing in the quarter finals in September – but leaked tries domestically.
Strong on paper
Yes, a sixth-place finish ensures a Champions Cup place next season, regardless of the tournament’s eventual format. But Azema, his staff and the players would be lying if they ever claimed it was good enough. Which they never have.
On paper, the 2020/21 Clermont squad looks stronger, more balanced and has a back line to terrify even the most organised of defences. ASM fans expect better fare than they saw sometimes last season. With this squad, they should get it.
Peni Ravai; Christian Ojovan; Adrien Pelissie; Etienne Fourcade; Sebastien Bezy; Kotaro Matsushima; Bastien Pourailly; Tavite Veredamu (short-term contract)
Davit Zirakashvili; Loni Uhila; Beqa Kakabadze; John Ulugia; Mike Tadjer; Faifili Levave; Julien Ruaud; Greig Laidlaw; Charlie Cassang; Isaia Toeava; Remy Grosso; Nick Abendanon; Donovan Taofifenua
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