Clermont battles Racing Metro for a place in the semi-finals
Racing-Metro go up against Napolioni Nalaga's Clermont (photo) on Friday to advance to France's Top 14's semi-finals. The other play-off sees European Cup-finalists Toulouse host Castres on Saturday.
AFP - Clermont are French club rugby's equivalent of always the bridesmaid and never the bride having been title finalists 10 times and never lifting the trophy.
On Friday they set out once again in seeking to shed their unwanted 'chokers' tag.
They host well-financed Parisian outfit Racing-Metro in the opening round of the play-offs for the chance to meet another richly-endowed outfit Toulon in the semi-finals.
The other play-off sees European Cup finalists Toulouse host long-time Top 14 leaders Castres on Saturday, with the winners progressing to a semi-final match against defending champions Perpignan, who have emerged in a poll of present and past players, coaches and directors in sports newspaper L'Equipe as the favourites to retain the crown.
All eyes though will be focused on Clermont and in particular their leading points scorer, Australian kicker Brock James, who is trying to show that he is not a player who goes into his shell in big matches.
The 28-year-old former Queensland Reds and Western Force star - who lost his post as leading Top 14 points scorer this term after topping it for the past three seasons - has a lot to do to prove his critics wrong especially after a woeful performance in the European Cup quarter-final defeat by 2009 winners Leinster last month.
James, who can be backed up as a kicker by France's Six Nations Grand Slam winning scrum-half Morgan Parra, admits that he has read the criticism of him and indeed agrees with some of it.
"That is why I ignore a lot of it as I am my own worst critic," he said.
One person certain that James, whose performances in the last three title finals have left a lot to be desired, will hold his nerve is Clermont coach Vern Cotter.
"Brock is a tough as teak competitor and we will support him through thick and thin," opined Cotter.
"And I know that he will come back as strong as ever."
Clermont, though, will hope that the dynamic Parra is able to play despite having two broken ribs as aside from his placekicking ability, his inspirational passing and vision will be integral to Clermont's dreams of making to a date with Toulon.
Certainly the pressure is being heaped on Cotter and his players as club vice-president Jean-Marc Lhermet has said in no uncertain manner what his expectations are of this end of season campaign.
"We want to reach the final and go one better than we have done in the past three seasons," he said.
"But in order to achieve that there remains a lot of work to be done."
Their ability to progress will face the sternest of challenges from a Racing-Metro side that has gained the bragging rights to be the best Parisian side as newly-promoted this term they still entertain hopes of the title while the traditional challenger from the capital Stade Francais has lurched from one crisis to another.
Their side is packed with experience - no more so than in the scrum, where former France captain Lionel Nallet and French rugby icon Sebastien Chabal - who is likely to play at No 8 - have been outstanding this term.
Another rugby great, former All Black fly-half Andrew Mehrtens, has proved to be an outstanding acquisition but is likely to start from the bench, though, unlike James his nerve should not fail him if he is called upon to take a last minute penalty to win the match.