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Clermont struggles to retain Top 14 title

PARIS May 13 – Clermont's joy was unconfined when they finally landed their first French rugby title last year after 10 previous fruitless final appearances but this season they have failed to recapture the same brilliance.
On Friday they face a real challenge in prolonging their defence of the title as they host Biarritz with the winners having the dubious privilege of then playing Toulouse – who finished top of the standings – in the semi-finals.

Clermont can at least take some comfort from the fact that they are at home because their away form has not been deserving of their champion status having only won two of their 13 away games.

However, they entertain a battle-hardened Biarritz side shorn of several of their key players, most notably captain Aurelien Rougerie, whose place at a third World Cup is also in danger after breaking a bone in an ankle and dislocating it to boot in last Saturday’s away defeat by Toulouse.

The elegantly-coiffed Rougerie has made a seamless transition from his favoured position of wing to centre at club and national level and his loss is a devastating one which has also been made worse as Samoan international utility back George Pisi is also out injured.

Another indispensable player, French first choice prop Thomas Domingo, is also out with a knee injury while the Clermont coach believes veteran Scottish scrummager Jason White is not fit enough to be rushed back into action.

French international lock Julien Pierre, though, does return after being rested for the Toulouse match and he insisted that by comparison to other teams, who failed to reach the play-offs despite high expectations, they had done rather well.

"I don’t know whether chaotic is the right term to summarise our season," he said.

"Inconsistent, complex, yes, but we are at home in our play-off match and when one sees that teams like Perpignan and Toulon have not even qualified, our season cannot be described as a catastrophe."

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Biarritz go into the match boosted by six of their number – including Imanol Harinordoquy in what will be his third World Cup – having been named in France’s World Cup squad.

Their players, though, are determined to focus on the immediate target that of beating Clermont and going on hopefully to lift the trophy for the sixth time in the club’s history but first since 2006.

The other play-off sees Castres host the surprise package of this season Montpellier, who put paid to Toulon’s chances in their final match last Saturday amidst emotional scenes at their home ground.

Joint coach Fabien Galthie has once again shown the coaching and motivational skills, that many people thought would have been ideal to replace Bernard Laporte as national coach after the 2007 World Cup, as he has turned a team, considered relegation candidates at the beginning of the season into title challengers.

However, the charismatic 42-year-old former France captain is revelling in his young and vibrant team’s achievements on the pitch.

"I feel as happy as when I coached Stade Francais to the title (2007). The performance by this young side is as good as it was by a more experienced Stade outfit."

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