“When I think of Vincent Clerc, I find it hard not to see a kind of cartoon image with horns, a tail and cloven hooves. There was a time when Clerc seemed to consider it his life’s work to inflict misery on the Irish rugby team.” Eddie O’Sullivan – Never Die Wondering
t is exactly 16 years to the day since Vincent Clerc plunged a dagger into Irish sporting hearts.
Thierry Henry would soon seize his highwayman’s costume, but until 2009, Clerc was Ireland’s bête noir.
At least he was allowed to use his hands.
In 2007, as today, these two countries met with a putative Grand Slam on the cards, even though their meeting was only in the second round of the Championship.
It was also an occasion that was drenched in all manner of historical symbolism, with Croke Park opening its doors for the first time to the erstwhile ‘foreign game’.
Only for another overseas invader to pillage the natives, in a sporting context, with his late, late show.
“Something like this doesn’t happen in every match,” says the ex-Toulouse great of perhaps the most significant of his 171 career touchdowns. Quite.
Nobody had expected it to happen in this match, either.
France had seemed the likelier winners for much of an enthralling Sunday afternoon until a thunderous rolling maul, as if propelled by the hollering hordes, provided Ronan O’Gara with a 77th-minute penalty that, for the first time, edged his side in front.
Despite being without Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland were on the verge of a seismic, shuddering success. And then from the skies the missile that would explode all their expectations.
True, there was less infamy concerning Clerc’s stunning winner than had been on display when Henry twice deployed a hand to scourge the Irish in 2009, but enough to be going on with for Paddy to plead pitiful perfidy.
Although Ireland had not gone flat to receive what was inevitably going to be a short restart, there were claims Paul O’Connell was taken out as the visitors plundered the loose pill.
The Irish hadn’t been happy with the referee Steve Walsh that day, the Antipodean with the film star looks apologising for not allowing an advantage to Geordan Murphy when he was in for a try, as well as missing foul play on Marcus Horan with Ireland set to score. But they couldn’t blame the officials for this late collapse.
Having failed to properly position themselves for the restart, Ireland struggled to re-align; once Clerc came in from the wing to receive the ball, with Neil Best and John Hayes blocking his immediate path, a swing of the hips launched the move that prompted another national meltdown.
“As for Croke Park, obviously it’s my best memory in the French team,” the 41-year-old recalls now.
He was conscious not only of creating a new history but participating in one that was shared, too.
During the build-up, his side had been comprehensively briefed as to the tragic events that had once transpired on the same turf upon which they now played.
Clerc cried during the rousing rendition of his opponents’ anthem; true, some tears were of the personal variety.
Like now, it was a World Cup year and, after injury had thieved his 2003 ambitions, the stakes were not only high for his team, but also for the Toulouse star.
“Emotion was very strong as it was the first time that the Irish team had played at Croke Park,” he says.
“It made the match absolutely splendid and it’s true to say that the physicality of the match with that try at the last second just added up to a whole lot.
“That try was decisive for me, as I was playing for my place to be in the French squad for the 2007 World Cup, so it made that moment absolutely magic.”
Instinct and intuition inspired the French score as they picked up the pieces; switching the ball from one wing to another – at one stage you can see O’Gara loitering on the wrong side of the final ruck, contemplating an illegality.
Clerc remembers getting the ball and taking the opportunity to score.
“Desire and instinct, we could have lost the ball a couple of times as it was all a little disorganised. I only moved as the defence was drifting. And when that choice is made, you must stick with it. And so I ran.”
There would be no French Slam, but Clerc won his place in the World Cup. His Croke Park try would spark a prolific run against Ireland and a love/hate relationship; he loved facing the Irish and they hated confronting him.
Clerc’s role in helping France win a third title ensured his place at that autumn’s World Cup.
There, as Ireland’s tournament imploded, Clerc applied the bayonet once more, this time scoring a brace in the Stade de France to confirm what had already been a facile romp.
Little surprise, then, that Clerc would score a 21-minute first-half hat-trick the next time the sides met, a 2008 Paris pummelling. His first was simply raw speed, racing on to Jean-Baptiste Elissalde’s box kick into space, almost a replica of his World Cup effort.
He quickly followed that up in the same corner, finishing off a well-worked move down the blindside and running on to David Skrela’s pass before taking Cedric Heyman’s pass and cutting inside Rob Kearney.
Ireland almost came back, losing just 26-21, but Clerc had once more proved the difference between the two sides.
“I don’t know why I’ve always had so much success against the Irish team. Each time I’ve scored a lot of tries.
“It’s surely a team that was good for me as both teams really wanted to play rugby. A lot of ball in play, a lot of turnovers, a lot of attacks.
“And as a winger with good team-mates I was able to take advantage and it’s true that I’ve had quite a particular destiny with this team.”
He would bookend his career with tries against the Irish; his first had come in 2004 and his last at Bordeaux in 2011, the pre-World Cup friendly that launched Conor Murray’s story, for one.
In all, he notched eight tries in just nine starts against Ireland; almost a quarter of his total haul (34 in 67 matches). He was a natural born finisher albeit he dabbled in other sports.
“I first of all tried all sports . . . judo, tennis, skiing, swimming, and I played rugby with my friends.
“But one day after school, I met a coach who really put a love for the game in me. And from that day on I never left it because I felt confident in a team, because I liked the fact that even if we only had small qualities, we could all bring those small things to the team.
“Each person could bring their personal touch and I’ve always liked that, and so I stayed because I’ve always been passionate about it and was lucky enough to make my career out of it.
“Rugby is something that can still open up for us late in life which is what makes that sport magic.”
He began his career with Grenoble but established himself at Toulouse, winning multiple titles after joining in 2002 along with a certain former milkman from Leixlip.
“Ah Trevor! He is somebody who is absolutely marvellous and of a rare kindness who was, especially in relation to sport, an outstanding combatant.
“When he was on the field we felt reassured. He had that gift of reassuring his team-mates because we knew that he would give his all on the field, and we wanted to do the same, and he is someone who continued to evolve throughout his career.
“He was not simply a fighter, he was someone who had been very intelligent in the evolution of his game.
“And he has attached himself to Toulouse so much that now his children play for France!”
They will both be in Dublin today, Clerc peering from a TV eyrie, slightly worried about their jittery Rome debut. “Perhaps they’re going to have to be more patient and less contested in the rucks,” he muses.
But, there will be nothing he can do to help France.
Belated relief for a population who once feared the Grim Reaper of Irish rugby.
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