SPORTS

Canadian Cudmore eyes European rugby crown as Clermont goes after Heineken Cup

04/25/2013 11:21 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT
Canadian international Jamie Cudmore already has French champion on his rugby resume. This weekend he takes a step closer to adding a European crown to his list of accomplishments.

The 34-year-old lock forward from Squamish, B.C., and his ASM Clermont Auvergne side take on Ireland's Munster in Montpellier's Stade de la Mosson in Saturday's Heineken Cup semifinal — the Northern Hemisphere's top rugby club competition.

Cudmore may not be a household name for Canadian sports fans but he has played professionally overseas for more than a decade and is one of Canada's best-known rugby exports.

The six-foot-five, 258-pound Cudmore is a hulking hitting machine who plays in the engine room of his French team's scrum.

He is a rugby hard man, who is no stranger to the sport's disciplinarians. But he is also a key contributor to a team that is turning heads this season.

Once the perennial bridesmaids of French club rugby, Clermont (18-6-1) currently tops the Top 14 domestic standings and is riding a French record-tying 59-game winning streak at home.

Clermont geared up for Munster by defeating defending French champion Toulouse 39-17 last weekend.

Saturday's semifinal is at a neutral site although Clermont fans don't have far to go to see their team. Montpellier is 250 kilometres from Clermont's Stade Marcel-Michelin.

"It's almost a home game," said Cudmore, who feels the love from the club's devoted fans.

"We've got an incredible following in this central part of France," added the Canadian.

Saturday's winner will meet either England's Saracens or France's Toulon, who face off Sunday at Twickenham, in the May 18 final before a sellout crowd of 51,009 at Dublin's Aviva Stadium.

Munster has a glittering rugby pedigree. Saturday marks its record-tying 10th Heineken Cup semifinal and the Irish side has reached the final four times, winning in 2006 and 2008.

This marks the second semifinal for Clermont, which lost 19-15 to eventual winner Leinster in Bordeaux at this stage last year. It was a bitter loss in that Wesley Fofana appeared to have scored the winning try with seconds remaining only to have a video review rule that he had lost possession of the ball at the last moment.

Clermont won all six of its pool games in this year's competition, recording 23 tries in outscoring Leinster, the Exeter Chiefs and the Scarlets by a combined 213-64. Clermont then ousted fellow French side Montpellier 36-14 in the quarter-finals.

The French team boasts the tournament's leading scorer in Morgan Parra (97 points) and try-scorer in Napolioni Nalaga (six tries). Fofana was tied for second with five tries.

Munster, by contrast, went 4-2-0 in finishing runner-up to England's Saracens in its group. The Irish side went on to defeat England's Harlequins 18-12 in the quarter-finals.

"We want to be in the final, we want to give ourselves a chance to win," Cudmore said this week from his French home.

"But we have a big task ahead of us Saturday, we have to keep our feet on the ground and stay humble and just make sure we do our work properly."

Soft-spoken off the field, the chiselled Cudmore is pure aggression on it.

In 2008, he was banned five weeks for punching Munster lock Paul O'Connell and four weeks for striking Wasps prop Tom Payne.

During the 2010-11 season, he was suspended 70 days for stomping on Saracens flanker Jacques Burger and 40 days for punching Perpignan's Gregory Le Corvec.

"Notoriously aggressive," wrote the Independent in 2010.

In November 2011, there was a 20-day ban for punching during a Top 14 match against Stade Francais.

His teammates see a different side to Cudmore, however.

"He's an adorable bloke. We won't try and wind him up because we know he's tough," Clermont's Julien Pierre said at the 2011 World Cup.

As with many of the top free-spending French sides, Clermont boasts a Who's Who of world rugby.

Former England back Austin Healey wrote recently in his Daily Telegraph newspaper column that a player who might make 300,000 pounds (C$469,740) at an English club could expect to make 500,000 ($782,900) in France.

Coached by New Zealand's Vern Cotter, the Clermont squad includes Australian Brock James, Georgia's Viktor Kolelishivi, New Zealand's Mike Delany, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Benson Stanley, South Africa's Gerhard Vosloo, Wales' Lee Byrne, and a host of French stars such as Fofana, Julien Bonnaire, Morgan Parra and captain Aurelien Rougerie.

Sivivatu and Fofana are elusive backs who can make opponents miss.

"The big forwards, we just try to give them as much ball as we can and just let them work their magic," said Cudmore.

Clermont's history of being the bridesmaid and not the bride involves 10 French final losses (including 2007, '08 and '09 during Cudmore's tenure) before finally beating Perpignan 19-6 in 2010.

Cudmore says the ensuring title celebrations were memorable.

"It put to shame any kind of celebration I've ever seen in hockey or football or anything," he said. "The whole town was up in arms for about a week, there was partying in the streets. It was amazing."

As the proprietor of a wine bar/restaurant called Vinomania and a sports bar/nightclub called The Five, the fluently bilingual Cudmore was enjoying the festivities.

"The bar was serving beer in full force and at the restaurant, we had the patio wide open," he recalled.

Cudmore is usually partnered in the second row with 36-year-old Nathan Hines, an Australian-born former Scottish international.

"It's been a pleasure to play the last couple of years with Nathan," said Cudmore. "We've struck up quite a good partnership. In life, we're good friends, our wives are good friends so that kind of helps."

Cudmore's wife Jennifer is originally from Newfoundland. They have a daughter, Maelle and son, Grayson

NOTES: Clermont and Munster have met four times in the Heineken Cup before, with each team winning twice at home ... Munster will be without former All Blacks winger Doug Howlett (shoulder) and Irish lock Donncha O'Callaghan (knee).

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