Broke James' drop-goal, the most beautiful rugby memory
I've been asked what my fondest rugby memory is. And I'm sure most of them will name a match. For me, it's a gesture. And the worst thing is that, in the end, my team still lost.
That was in 2016. Top 14 semi-final in Rennes. On paper, my Clermont is perhaps the most exciting version of history. And even though Nalaga has left, what a squad. Stars galore, kids from the club, old hands, young hopefuls. The squad is so dense that some players who have been indisputable for years have lost their place. Such is the case with Brock James, the fly-half. Until now, he was untouchable. Unstoppable. But for the first time in 10 years, he is no longer ASM's starting fly-half. And frankly, who can blame the coach? Instead, a very talented young Frenchman has made his mark: Camille Lopez. And it's he, in particular, who has given my lads the second-best attack in France.
But on the other side of the pitch, Brittany is also up against an armada. The Racing of Dan Carter, Rokocoko, Szarzewski, Dulin and Yannick Nyanga. It's simple: on the pitch this afternoon, of the 30 first-teamers, they are all internationals. Or will become so. It's star wars.
The match was, as expected, very tense and close. Damien Chouly and Wesley Fofana score a try for Clermont. Joe Rokocoko and Johannes Goosen scored for Racing. In the 68th minute of the match, our new playmaker makes way for Brock James. It's funny, but I've always liked this Australian player. Probably because he's got mad talent. Or maybe it's because he's a normal-looking guy in the middle of the monsters. A normal guy who plays rugby. Or maybe it's because of his mittens, which he wears even when the weather's great. I don't really know. And then I've met him a few times, and he's a real nice guy. That doesn't explain everything, but it doesn't spoil anything.
After 80 minutes of bitter fighting, regulation time ended in a draw. Then it was time for extra time. Everyone is tired. Even us in the stands are starting to get sore throats, hands and hearts. It's crazy to get into such a state. It must be passion that makes us travel 9 hours by bus to experience moments like this.
And in this extra time, a gesture from elsewhere. Just as we had the ball away from the Racing in-goal, the ball came out of a ruck. Brock James takes the ball. The defence didn't go up. And, with a masterly drop-kick from over 50 metres out, in incredible silence, he catapults the ball upwards in slow motion. And it went between the posts. A real shotgun blast. The stadium could have been 20 metres further away and he would probably still have passed. And then it explodes! We're in the final, that's for sure!
Only Racing had a lucky star that day. Kruger, a giant, intercepted the ball and gave it to Juan Imhoff. That run to the end zone still hurts a bit. Because, in hindsight, it gave Racing victory. A place in the final. And the title. But above all, that day was Brock James' last match with Clermont. His time in Auvergne was marked by a title, the first in history. And that drop-goal from somewhere else left a lasting impression on my memory.
Testimonial from Damien Chouly, former captain of ASM Clermont
Here's what former Clermont captain Damien Chouly had to say. He won 46 caps for "Les Bleus" and was French champion with Clermont and Perpignan.
That day, he played the full 100 minutes of the match between Clermont and Racing. And he recounts:
"I remember it very well. Because I'd already organised everything to go to Barcelona (laughs). I especially remember the cruel outcome of that match. We lose, we come back, we're leading... And then that drop goal. We were 6 points ahead. And then that match, especially the extra time: a 100-minute match. And at the end, that interception for offside... It was crazy.
In a match like that, it's obviously very hard physically. But mentally it's even worse. You never give up. And when we're +6, we try to keep the pressure on Racing. I remember it well: there's this clearance that doesn't go into touch. We get the ball back in their half and we play. Then we intercepted a pass, but we didn't know how. After Juan Imhoff's try, we knew that Dan Carter wasn't going to miss the conversion.
What do I remember? The fatigue and mental wear and tear of this match. But I have to admit that when Brock passes that drop-goal, yes, I can see us winning. He made a fantastic entrance. He brings serenity and control.
At ASM, Brock is the symbol of Clermont's best years. In a way, he's the player who ensured the club's revival. Along with coach Vern Cotter. And for 10 years, he ran the show. He brought his style of play to Clermont, which was recognised as being the most open and spectacular. He was a quiet but determined guy. He was quite precise in what he expected from the game and from others. He ran the game like a boss. Off the pitch, he was adorable. But on the pitch, he grumbled a lot. Above all, Brock was intelligent and demanding. That's why he was so consistent, particularly in his footwork.
On that day, his kick was perfect. It's 40 metres out, a little off the mark. When the drop kick goes in, you know it's going to go in. But you wait and wait. And it goes over the top of the posts! He could have kicked even further.
I have to admit that even today it's one of those games that's still hard to digest. Because the scenario is cruel, and because there's still the question of the last kick. And given the effort it takes to get to the semi-finals of the championship, given the commitment of an entire club, of all the players... Frankly, by the end of the match, everything was coming together. We knew it was Brock James' last game. But above all it was a collective disappointment. A few players were leaving. And the year before, we'd just lost two finals in the Top 14 and the Champions Cup. We really wanted to finish on a high note. And playing in Barcelona, at the Camp Nou, was a huge opportunity. It comes along once in a lifetime. Even today, there are only two clubs who can say they played there.