Peter Bills: Clermont Auvergne exercise the demons
Tuesday 01 June 2010
Exorcising a demon is always a pleasurable activity and few come bigger than French club Clermont Auvergne's achievement at the weekend of becoming French champions for the first time in their 99-year history.
To do it, Clermont had to banish the memory of 10 finals, every one of them lost dating back to 1936. This was their fourth consecutive final and they had lost in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
So credit Clermont and their New Zealand coaching duo of Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt, as the latter now heads for Leinster to replace Michael Cheika as head coach.
In truth, Clermont's victory, by 19pts to 6 in the final over Perpignan, was no classic. But it contained, as too many matches do nowadays, an absolute absurdity that the International Rugby Board surely needs to address to restore proper values of fair play.
Just three minutes into the second half, Clermont replaced their Argentine tight head prop Martin Scelzo, at 126 kgs a mere slip of a lad, with the Georgian, Davit Zirakashvili, by no means himself an inconsequential light weight at 113kgs. But such are the nuances of the scrummage that weight alone is no panacea for all ills, no inevitable passport to perfection. That is its triumph, its secret.
Smaller men can dominate altogether bigger, heavier human beings by dint of superior scrum technique. It is the triumph of the phase, the classic intricacy of this dark, largely hidden world within a sport.
Scelzo had been solidly efficient against the Perpignan scrum. Neither side had an overwhelming advantage but nor was either fatally exposed. Yet the minute Zirakashvili came on, Clermont's scrum struggled. It is the primary task of the tight head to secure the scrum, to give it stability and power, a solid platform off which other component parts of the team's game can function.
As we have seen very widely of late, without that solid, efficient scrummage platform, a team can be fatally compromised.
Clermont never looked in danger of losing Saturday night's French final but once Scelzo had lumbered off like some great animal hulk, things certainly changed in the front row. Clermont's previous solidity was certainly compromised with Perpignan loose head Perry Freshwater, the Englishman, giving Zirakashvili all kinds of hurry up at scrum time.
Freshwater himself was substituted on the hour mark but Zirakashvili's difficulties continued. He looked vulnerable on the night and the Clermont scrum continued to struggle with him on board.
Thus it was that, with the final 10 minutes remaining, who should suddenly re-appear but the giant Scelzo, nicely rested after nearly half an hour on the bench, in place of the ineffective Zirakashvili. And lo and behold, at the very first scrum following the Argentine's return, Clermont's scrum re-established its former solidity. No more dramatic lurches, twists or collapses, just a nice steady, solid platform off which Clermont could move smoothly towards their triumphant destiny.
Now no-one on earth, not even Perpignan who had after all beaten them the previous year in the final, could have begrudged Clermont their success after all these years. Nor could anyone pretend that Scelzo's re-emergence decisively tilted the game, dictated the outcome. Clermont had this one won long, long before that.
But what manner of nonsense is it in this sport that allows one of its participants to be voluntarily replaced, sit down and have a nice rest for half an hour, before resuming his duties? I thought rugby union was supposed to be a fair contest, a realistic examination of skills, strength and fitness levels.
We are surely entitled to the view that the substitution nonsense within the game has gone too far when this sort of absurdity occurs. I understand completely the arguments about the dangers of scrummaging and the need to have proper specialist players in key positions such as the front row. That is only fair and proper.
Yet at no stage on Saturday night did either Martin Scelzo or Davit Zirakashvili appear injured. Presumably, Scelzo was tired by his first half exertions and needed a rest. I doubt he'd have returned but for Zirakashvili's difficulties on the night.
But if rugby football is now a sport where a guy can go off to put his feet up for a while before resuming the battle then it truly has gone down the road of American sports. Is that to be its legacy, that it lamely followed American sports?
I would have thought even in this professional era, those who are charged with administering this game would have preserved the notion of a proper and fair contest, one in which superior strength or technique is ultimately rewarded. Sadly, that appears no longer to be the case.
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