Clermont spy a glorious ending

Clermont go into their home European Challenge Cup semi-final against Newport Gwent Dragons determined to go all the way to next month’s final and finish a terrific season on a high.

The Auvergnats, whose disappointment at missing out on either the Top 14 semi-finals or Heineken Cup qualification saw a complete turnover of coaching staff in the close season, have cemented their place in France’s top four this time around, including a magnificent 46-9 win over Toulouse last November.

They have gone from strength to strength in the Challenge Cup as well seeing off the challenge of Worcester, Albi and Viadana with six wins, only two of which were without bonus points

“As a team, we made it one of our season’s goals to win the European Challenge Cup and, now that we are in the semi-finals, we are really in a position to maybe realise that goal,” said fly-half Brock James, man of the match in their quarter-final win over Newcastle Falcons and currently the Top 14’s top points scorer.

“We are not there to make up the numbers and we have a real shot of reaching the final. European rugby is very different to playing the domestic game and there is the great opportunity to play against different styles of opposition.

The team goes into the game on the back of a disappointing 24-7 reverse away to Toulouse in the league, although they still remain second in the top 14 table.

“Obviously last weekend’s game against Toulouse was pretty important, but the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup is another big game for us and we are going to be getting into some intensive preparation this week,” continued James.

“It’s a hard part of the season now with every game being so important so the tempo has been up for a while now and we should slip fairly easily into semi-final mentality.

“We were disappointed with last week’s performance and we know that there are a lot of things we need to focus on and put right before Saturday so it’s going to be a busy week.

“We have got lots of things to work on as a team and we’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Dragons and try to exploit what we can.”

French teams rarely lose at home, and while the Dragons have enjoyed wins away at Bristol among others, their away form generally has been poor this season. The Stade Marcel Michelin is a tough place to go at the best of times, and Clermont will start as overwhelming favourites.

“I know that they have had much better home form than away this season so we are going to make the home advantage work for us,” said James.

“Having said that, although we are being touted as favourites for the match, that doesn’t mean anything if you can’t produce the goods on the day. We’ll try and focus our game strategy on the weaknesses of the Dragons.

“We know they are a strong side and that they will play a very physical game so, with the turnaround being just six days – which is shorter than we are used to – it’s going to be a real challenge.”

And while coach Vern Cotter accepts they are left to fly the French flag, he does not see that as being a hindrance in their pursuit of glory.

“As far as being the only French side left in Europe, we are not feeling the pressure – we are just happy to still be in the competition, and we are looking to go as far as we can,” he said. “The guys all want to come home with silverware of course and another European title would be great!

“Although I don’t know Newport particularly well, we know Brive and we know that Newport beat Brive by 30 odd points in the quarter-final which isn’t easy to do. We also know that they’ve got quality all over the park and have a very complete style of play with the combinations of serious power and pace.

“We are focussing on our performance on a match-by-match basis and we know we are capable of putting in a really good game but we have to look at our shortco

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