Clermont share a similar history to the Hollywoodbets Sharks

Clermont share a similar history to the Hollywoodbets Sharks

The Clermont-Auvergne team that the Hollywoodbets Sharks will face in Saturday’s EPCR Challenge Cup semifinal in London has had a few lean years but they will be arriving at the Stoop in good form.

The French team are only 10th on the domestic (Top 14) log, having just won nine games in 22 starts with three draws, but they moved up a position at the weekend with a good 41-18 win over Stade Francais and have several players, including French international flyhalf Anthony Belleau, in a confident mood.

Belleau supplemented his good tactical game by scoring 16 points with his boot and the Sharks will be well advised to retain the much-improved discipline they’ve shown recently.

That Clermont shift up the log might be bad news for the Sharks as it gives them a greater degree of comfort in the battle to avoid the dreaded relegation zone, with the bottom two teams being in peril (the team that finishes last drops out automatically while second last plays a playoff game). That means Clermont might be more inclined to give the game their best shot, which is usually the case anyway once French teams get this deep into a European cup competition.

Clermont used to make a habit of going deep not only in Europe but also in their domestic league, but they’ve experienced a drought since 2019. Indeed, when it comes to the history of the clubs, Clermont share something with their opponents - they also won their first domestic trophy in their centenary year.

Of course, Natal, as the Sharks were then known, did it when they won the Currie Cup in 1990. Clermont, also playing under a different identity in the earlier years, and they are still often referred to as Montferrand, won the top 14 in their 100th year of trying in 2010 to end a period of anguish which saw them make the final 10 times and come second each time.

Based in Clermont-Ferrand, the city where Marcel Michelin, the son of the founder of the French tyre manufacturer, built the first factory and also the Stade Marcel Michelin before World War 1, went on to win the French domestic trophy again in 2017. They have also played in several Top 14 finals, but none since 2019, when they lost to Toulouse.

That year also saw Clermont win their second Challenge Cup, with the first win coming in 2007. But they haven’t featured in the business end of any major competition since 2019, which is something that unfortunately for the Sharks they also share with Saturday’s opponents in the playoff game at the Stoop in Twickenham. Both teams have good players on their books but have hit lean times lately.

The one thing the Sharks should be pleased about is that they are not playing Clermont-Auvergne on their home ground. At the Michelin, like with so many home venues for French clubs, they are renowned for being particularly difficult opponents. And you can see it in their results from this season - they’ve had some great results at home, most recently in last Saturday’s clash with Stade Francais.

It was also at their home stadium, which the DHL Stormers discovered when they lost there in their first ever Investec Champions Cup match last season can be as hostile and as noisy as it is colourful on match days, that Clermont saw off Ulster in their Champions Cup quarterfinal. Not just saw off, they comprehensively thrashed the United Rugby Championship contenders 53-14. In their Top 14 game against mighty Toulouse, they lost by just four points.
Earlier in the Challenge Cup the Toyota Cheetahs were competitive in coming back from a big deficit to lose the round of 16 game by five points, but as with most French clubs, their potency in European cup competitions becomes more pronounced the deeper they get.
They should be going to London supremely motivated to make the final and bid for their third Challenge Cup trophy. Indeed, it was at the Stoop that Clermont won their first Challenge Cup final after a few unsuccessful attempts.

They beat Bath 22-16 that day in 2007 and the last time they tasted success in 2019 their victims were the future Champions Cup title holders, La Rochelle, who they beat 36-16 at St James’ Park in Newcastle.

Although they aren’t the potent force they were in 2019 and between 2010 and 2017 when they played in and lost three Champions Cup finals in addition to their two Challenge Cup and Top 14 successes, the Clermont side are still formidable when at full strength.
Among the players on their books are Wallaby lock Rob Simmons, George Moala the Tongan international, the aforementioned French international Belleau, Argentine internationals Tomas Lavinini, Bautista del Guy and Marcos Kremer, the dangerous wing Alivereti Raka and the powerfully built hooker Étienne Fourcade.

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