Thrashings on the scale Clermont Auvergne inflicted on Northampton last weekend are rare. "Everything we tried came off," says Clermont’s Nick Abendanon of the 37-5 European Champions Cup win over England’s Premiership champions, with the added satisfaction that the same could be said of the full-back’s own move from Bath to the Massif Central last summer.
By following the path into the French league, trodden most famously by Jonny Wilkinson, the 28-year-old Abendanon put his England career at risk, given the red-rose selection policy. But considering his two caps to date came in 2007, combined with Bath making other plans based on Anthony Watson as their first-choice full-back, the rewards of crossing the Channel became more appealing.
“Everyone told me the town of Clermont-Ferrand was depressing and industrial, with crappy weather in the winter,” Abendanon says, “but I am sitting on the terrace of my apartment with a fantastic view over the cathedral and the mountains and the Puy de Dôme [an extinct volcano lying 10km from the town] with clear blue skies. It’s fantastic.”
The distinctive gothic cathedral is built from black volcanic rock, the Clermont supporters describe themselves as the “yellow army” after the team’s jersey colours, and next Saturday upwards of 30,000 of them will make the trip for the semi-final to the “green hell” of the Saint Étienne football stadium, where Michel Platini once strutted his stuff. “You can hardly hear yourself think with 18,000 at our Stade Marcel Michelin,” Abendanon says, “so this is going to be pretty amazing.”
Ironically, Abendanon’s international career floundered in part because of a Frenchman. In a World Cup warm-up match in August 2007, Sébastien “The Caveman” Chabal was hurtling towards a try at Twickenham when Abendanon, then 20 and winning his second cap, failed to stop the bearded forward. Abendanon was left out of the tournament by the then coach Brian Ashton, although he eventually collected a runners-up medal as an injury call-up in the final week.
Fast forward to eight days ago and a dynamic tackle on Northampton lock Christian Day painted a different picture of Abendanon’s defence; there was also his rip of the ball from George Pisi for a thrilling 80-metre try, and some brilliant combinations with Wesley Fofana, the stylish French centre. Abendanon also points out that for many years he was playing in a mid-table Bath team, whereas Clermont were joint leaders of the French Top 14 with Toulon before yesterday’s matches. “I have never stopped wanting to play for England,” he says. “But Browny [Mike Brown of Harlequins] has been playing well and they like the utility of [Saracens’] Alex Goode.”
England have a confusing, controversial rule that prohibits the selection of players based abroad, while affording Stuart Lancaster leeway to break it in “exceptional circumstances”; and the head coach has never ruled out including Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage in this summer’s World Cup preparations. Abendanon is marrying his fiancée Florence in July – she is with him in France, studying for a business masters – and it is more luck than planning that the date leaves him free for England’s altitude-training trip to Colorado... if they want him.
Meanwhile, the folk of Clermont-Ferrand have warmed to him after 18 first-team appearances. “You get recognised a lot and it’s different to Bath,” Abendanon explains. “People aren’t embarrassed to storm up and demand a photo or an autograph. And if you’ve had a good win you might get a free entrée or a cup of coffee, which is always nice.”
He joined a Clermont squad of 10 nationalities; indeed his own passport is Dutch,the nationality of his parents, though they grew up in South Africa, which was where he was born. “But I see myself as English because I’ve been living in England all my life,” he points out.
“I had some French lessons before I left Bath. But with the rugby stuff, you learn quickly. All the meetings are done in French and you just get to know the calls. The first three phases after a set-piece are known by everybody – there was a try from a line-out against Northampton and the call for that by the fly-half would be easy, the name of an animal or something. The forwards’ coach, Jono Gibbes, is from New Zealand, but Jamie Cudmore [the Canadian lock] translates for him.”
Socially, Abendanon is “pretty tight” with the All Black wing Zac Guildford and Welsh centre Jonathan Davies, while the Fijian flyers Noa Nakaitaci and Napolioni Nalaga “keep themselves to themselves”.
The pomp of this powerful collective invites inevitable questions about France’s misfiring national team. “I’d put that down to the coaching,” says Abendanon. “Fofana is one of the best players, if not the best, I’ve played with. And we utilise him a lot better than France do. But one thing I have found frustrating is the club not fielding the same team twice in a row. We have only won two games away in the Top 14, because they prefer to play the best players in home games. Overall I’d say the French league is more physical than the Premiership.”
Abendanon has a unique try celebration, twisting a finger winsomely on his cheek, that derives from the venerable pub game of Spoof, beloved of his father and a group of friends. Ostentatious gloating costs the offender a round of drinks and, much, much worse, is regarded as ungentlemanly. No such limitations will apply to Clermont if they win the Champions Cup final at Twickenham next month. First they face Saracens in next weekend’s semi-final. They have met Sarries six times and the semi-final last April was a record 46-6 rout to the English club. In pool play this season, each team won the home match. Both have lost more big finals than they have won. “It’s something we’re desperate to put right,” says Abendanon. Hence the words on the Clermont changing-room walls and the team T-shirts: “Humble, disciplined, hungry”.
Clermont Auvergne v Saracens is on BT Sport 1 next Saturday, kick-off 3.15pmReuse content