Unwanted James targets Euro gold
Wed, 15 May 2013 15:01
The European Cup is not an easy competition to win
Brock James' career could have slipped off the edge of a cliff when the then Western Force coach John Mitchell told him he would be the fifth choice flyhalf if he hung around in Perth for the 2007 Super campaign.
The former Australia Under-21 and Sevens international had just finished his first full season and was hoping for a breakthrough.
Instead, he got knocked back … but not down.
He weighed up his options and, against the odds, found a willing employer in a rugby-mad town in the centre of France.
Wales and British & Irish Lions star Stephen Jones had just returned to the green, green grass of home and the only real opposition for the ASM Clermont Auvergne No.10 shirt was Fijian international Seremia Bai.
The rest, as they say, is history.
James has turned into one of the best Australian buys in France and on Saturday in Dublin hopes to steer the club that put their faith in his ability to their first European Cup crown.
The 31-year-old Victorian was in the hot seat three years ago when Clermont finally broke their duck in the French Championship Final at the 11th time of asking, beating Perpignan 19-6, and know he aims to help his side become the first in tournament history to win nine games in a row to take the most coveted title in Northern Hemisphere club rugby.
Trying his best to stop him from adding a 2013 European Cup winners' medal to the Bouclier de Brennus (French Championship) crown he won in 2010 and the Challenge Cup title in 2007, will be Toulon's Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom, who could feature in the match-day 23.
Only five Aussies have won the European Cup to date – Pat Howard (Leicester Tigers 2001), Rod Kafer (Leicester Tigers 2002), Paul Warwick (Munster 2008), Rocky Elsom (Leinster 2009) and Chris Whitaker (Leinster 2009) – but either James or Giteau could swell the list to half-a-dozen on Saturday.
Since joining Clermont seven years ago, James has transformed himself from bit-part player at the Western Force to the driving influence at one of Europe's most successful sides.
It is not just his goal-kicking that has steered Clermont into six major finals during his stint at the club.
His general game management since taking over the No.10 jersey from Jones has marked him out as one of Clermont's most consistent performers, despite the presence of David Skrela in recent seasons.
He ended his first season at the club with an Challenge Cup winners' medal, scoring a try, two conversions and a penalty in the 22-16 victory over Bath in the Final at Twickenham Stoop, and then played in four successive French Championship finals.
His five penalties weren't enough to make it a double in 2007, as Clermont went down 18-23 to Stade Francais Paris, and his 10 points the following year against Toulouse were too few again.
In 2009, he partnered current Toulon backs coach Pierre Mignoni at halfback and scored eight points in a 22-13 defeat to Perpignan.
Success finally came, both for James and, at the 10th time of asking, Clermont in the 2010 final in Paris when the Bouclier de Bennus finally found its way back to Stade Michel-Michelin.
This season's quest has all been about climbing Europe's Everest by winning the European Cup, but there is also a chance of a double if Clermont can keep on winning. They ended the Top 14 season at No.1 and will play in the semi-finals in Nantes next weekend.
"The European Cup is not an easy competition to win and to try to manage it with your home competition as well is a very hard thing to do," James said.
"I guess we struggled a bit with that for the first couple of years since we got back into it regularly," he added.
"We might have had a bit more of a focus on Top 14 and maybe we gained some experience through that. Being our first European Cup final has its own importance, but for us the European stage is still quite a big step.
"It's one of those competitions where you have to earn your stripes and learn how to go about things. I'm not the one to judge if this is the biggest game in the club's history, but over the last few years it has to be up there."
Victory over Munster in an epic semifinal in Montpelier earned Clermont their ticket to Dublin and having beaten reigning champions Leinster twice in the Pool stages they effectively ended Irish dreams of making it six titles in nine years.
But given the nature of the friendly rivalry, and respect, built up over their games against Leinster in recent seasons, allied to the fact Joe Schmidt used to be their coach, James is hoping the locals will be backing yellow rather than the red of Toulon.
"We kind of hoped that some of those Irish supporters would get behind us if we got back to the Aviva. It would be nice to see them out there," said James.
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