Davies backing Clermont 'to go all the way' in Champions Cup
21 April 2017 10:26
Jonathan Davies is backing his old team mates to triumph in Europe
Jonathan Davies isn't giving his British & Irish Lions team mates at Leinster much of a chance of beating his old Clermont side in the Champions Cup semi-final in Lyon at the weekend.
The Scarlets and Wales centre, who could link up with Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton in the Lions back line against the world champions All Blacks in New Zealand this summer, says he will be donning his Clermont beret this weekend and hoping his old club's quest for the top honour in European club rugby finally bears fruit in 2017.
The Scarlets and Wales centre was part of the Clermont 'Class of 2015' that reached the final and fell yet again to RC Toulon at Twickenham Stadium. He admits that that defeat ranks "as one of the biggest misses of my career" and that many of his former team mates feel the same.
The question is, can they overcome any psychological barrier that has bared their way to the title in two previous finals and push past Leinster Rugby in Lyon on Sunday to set-up a third shot at the Champions Cup?
"There is a monkey on their back for always having been the bridesmaid in Europe, but they have so much quality and power in their side and they do look very comfortable at the moment," said Davies, who spent two seasons at Stade Marcel Michelin before returning to the Scarlets.
"Wesley Fofana is a big loss for them because he is their spark, and they have also lost Noa Nakaitaci, but when you look across the park they still have so much strength and depth. That was the one thing we always had when I was there - you lose an international player and you bring in another one.
"They have so much experience, but in the past when things have got tight in the big games they have sometimes gone into their shell. That's what we did in the 2015 final at Twickenham.
"We scored some early tries, had a few other near misses and controlled the pace of the game. But then we lost a bit of control.
"I said when I went to Clermont I was going there to win things. We reached the Champions Cup, but just came up short and I regard that as one of the biggest misses in my career. We should have won it and it really is the highest stage of club rugby in Europe - everyone wants to be a part of it."
As well as knowing the ins and outs of the Clermont players, coaches and playing style, Davies is also well-versed in the qualities of Leo Cullen's Leinster side and players from his experiences of laying in the PRO12. We all know where his heart will be at the weekend, but what does his head say?
"Playing at tempo is the key thing for Clermont. When they can play with real tempo the whole side comes alive," added Davies.
"Both teams will enjoy the occasion and there are a lot of very experienced players in both camps. As a squad, Clermont are very tight-knit, they all play for each other, the spirit is fantastic and everyone is very close.
"It will be whoever gets the ball rolling first, whoever finds their rhythm and gets comfortable. Clermont are very hard to stop when they get the ball rolling, especially with that pack - it was a pleasure to play with, rather than against, them, let me tell you.
"I joined the club at the same time as Camille Lopez and he has grown as a player over the past three years. He was excellent last year and his game management is definitely now up there with the very best.
"He is good at putting his team in good areas and that's what you want from your No 10. With Morgan Para, the general, inside him, I think they will be the maestros pulling the strings for Clermont.
"But if Leinster can get the high-tempo game they like to play, and move the big Clermont pack round, then they will be happy. When Leinster were dominant in Europe they were always one of the best teams at two or three phase plays.
"They were so accurate at setting up the strike plays and I think they've gone back to that. You can tell by their accuracy and execution that they very rarely waste an opportunity
"Johnny Sexton is playing with confidence and pulling the strings for them and they so much talent - a strong back row, and strong midfield. They will be looking at those two areas to be their catalyst in Lyon and it will be a tough and exciting game.
"For me, it will come down to which of the two teams can dictate the pace of the game. Clermont looked very good in the pool stages and very businesslike against Toulon - I can see them going all the way this season."
And if they do, Davies believes it will be a fitting tribute to 'Mr Clermont', his former club captain Aurelien Rougerie. Now 36, he has been at the club man and boy and made his European debut 17 years ago.
"I loved working with Aurelien and I'd love to see him lift the trophy. He epitomises everything that is good about Clermont - he loves the club and has been there since he was 16 or 17," said Davies. "I think he deserves this piece of silverware to top off a fantastic career. After all, he is Mr Clermont."
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