It’s easy to see how Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt worked as a partnership. Unannounced and apologetically, we came at the 51-year-old New Zealander in the lead-up to the Heineken Cup final. He answered our questions straight, providing as much time as we needed.
We start with Aurelien Rougerie. The veteran centre is to ASM Clermont Auvergne what Paul O’Connell is to Munster. Dyed in the wool, leader.
Injured. A hamstring tear, sustained in their dismissal of Toulouse four weeks ago, Clermont’s captain is unlikely to recover for the Toulon collision in Dublin on Saturday.
Their South African recruits, flanker Gerhard Vosloo and prop Daniel Kotze, are further concerns.
“Don’t think I’ll get all three of those guys back,” said Cotter. “Hopefully I’ll get one or two but I’m reasonably doubtful.”
“Aurelien is 50 50. He ran a bit today. We’ll put him on the paddock Thursday with the medics making the decision for us.”
That means Regan King will probably be on Mathieu Bastareaud watch. A one-time All Black, King ripped it up against Munster, somewhat easing the loss of the Clermont’s most iconic sportsman.
“It would be very disappointing for him to miss out but we have been able to rotate. We played the semi-final without him, as we did the quarter-final without Brock James. We’ll adapt if we have to.”
Candaian bruiser Jamie Cudmore (shoulder), the giant Vincent Debaty (thigh) and outstanding Napolioni Nalaga (ankle) are fit to play.
Sitiveni Sivivatu may have rediscovered his devastating All Black form of late, but it’s his fellow Fijian winger that leads all the statistics. Nalaga is the competition’s top try scorer with seven in eight games, top carrier (94), most metres (667), clean breaks (13), defenders beaten (26).
Cotter also has a humongous pack of forwards at his disposal. Toulon are bigger. Bakkies Botha facing off against Cudmore and Nathan Hines makes this, the fourth all-French European decider, the final of enforcers.
“They apply constant pressure, they never let up, there are no surprises with these players, everybody knows them.
“For us, it is about being able to get fast ball, play a high tempo, keep them moving. That’s our basic game plan.”
Keep up the pace
So, keep up the pace and Clermont win, get dragged into a sumo wrestle and Jonny Wilkinson will kick Toulon onto the podium? “They are a very physical team, the most physical team we’ve come up against. They dominate and then create space with Matt Giteau excellent at seeing gaps and exploiting them. It is generated by a very strong go forward from their pack and Bastareaud in midfield.”
It is put to Cotter that the pressure could get to Clermont. Against Munster in the semi-final they returned for the second half a pale shadow of the marauding, intimidating men who dominated the opening stanza.
“Subconsciously, I think we got a little careless. We didn’t apply pressure on them constantly when we got in front. They scored a well worked try. They put pressure on us and got a reward for that. Then the game changed. “But I think we kept enough calm and control to come away with the win.”
One more question. What does he think about his former assistant coach getting the Ireland job? “I think he deserves it. He’s done a great job for Leinster, he’ll do a great job for Ireland. He’s a very hard working coach, he’s a smart person, he’s a good person. If he’s got good people around him they will do great things for Irish rugby.”
Okay, last one. Promise. What’s all this about you joining Joe Schmidt in the international arena as the Scotland coach? “Ah jee, I seem to be getting linked with all these jobs. I’ve got another year left with Clermont. I would like to finish well and then we’ll see whether the adventure can continue here or perhaps it will be time to move on.”
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