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Clermont star David Strettle eyes European glory

Cars adorned with club colours, fans young and old in Clermont kit, it was a true celebration of the sport they love. So if they can triumph in Europe this season, there will be an even bigger party in a blue-collar tyre city with an oval ball obsession.

Over the next nine days the former England wing will take on his old club Saracens in back-to-back Champions Cup group matches which will represent a reality check on his ambitions.

Strettle is already part of an exclusive club having won domestic titles in France as well as England. His dream – before he leaves Clermont at the end of the season – is to become the first Englishman to conquer Europe from both sides of the Channel.

Saracens are the gods of Europe; Clermont remain the nearly men but, having finally lifted the Bouclier de Brennus in France last season, the Mountain Men from the Auvergne are in the mood for shattering another glass ceiling.

“When I won the league at Saracens, it was very much an internal joy for the team,” says Strettle. “You had some diehard Saracens fans but I could have gone round Barnet and knocked on doors and said that Saracens had won the league and they’d have been like: ‘Oh yeah?’.

“In Clermont it is the lifeblood of the city. We got back to the city last season and there were 60,000 in the main square. To be part of that, to see that every car had the yellow and blue ribbons and stickers and all the kids and grandmas wearing the shirts you suddenly realise what the impact is on the fans and the happiness it brings. It is an experience I’ll never forget.

“I remember going into shops after winning the Top 14 and everyone was saying: ‘Next year Europe. Next year Europe’. You can see that the supporters want it. It is the top honour in club rugby. The Auvergne won’t be happy until that trophy is with Clermont.”

In a heavyweight third round of the Champions Cup which sees the top two clubs in all five pools going head to head, Saracens versus Clermont – a repeat of last season’s Murrayfield final – retains top billing.

Both are unbeaten in Europe but there have been unfamiliar hiccups this season too. Saracens have lost their last five matches while Clermont are languishing in ninth place in the Top 14.

“I think when you carry the tag of champions of France teams want to beat you that bit more. The passion in France is immense. But I wouldn’t say it’s been anyone else’s fault apart from ours,” says the 34-year-old.

“There have been times in games when we’ve taken our foot off the gas and we’ve let teams back into the game or we’ve possibly not respected the opposition enough.”

As always with French rugby, mood is as relevant as tactics or talent. Strettle, in his third season in France, has become familiar with the peaks and troughs.

“The French are a lot more emotional than the English. It’s a lot easier for the English boys to separate the emotion and see it as a job to be done. The French can raise their game a bit more with that emotion but it can drop too when they get emotional knockbacks,” he says.

“There are differences here. There are some things which infuriate me but others where I ask: ‘why aren’t we doing it in England’.

“In England everything is designed to get the best out of players in a short space of time to get them fresh for the weekend. Here, you have two hours off at lunch, 12-2, when everyone relaxes and hits the pause button. Then you start again. It can make a longer day than you are used to in professional sport but it is the way they do things over here.

“You go to the bank here and it is closed between 12 and 2 – everywhere is around France.”

The playing style differs too at Clermont to the Saracens machine he remembers. “French rugby isn’t as focused on work ethic off the ball but there is more freedom to play,” he says.

“There are some times in England that you become a bit of a metronome going through the motions because something is effective. When you see the French boys play, sometimes it doesn’t happen for them but then they score a worldie of a try. Then you think: ‘well actually, there is a time and a place for it’.

“I definitely feel it has benefited my game from coming here. But I feel that from every club I’ve been to.”

He is open-minded about his next move at the end of the season, with a return to England a possibility. But for the time being it is full throttle for Clermont towards what they believe is their European destiny.

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