Our countdown of the Greatest Heineken Cup Players Of All Time is hotting up and coming in at number five is Vincent Clerc, a cold-blooded try scorer with a record of 35 tries in 73 appearances.
In every sport finding a prolific scorer is the hardest task of management. None more so than in rugby and the Heineken Cup, where having a player who routinely crosses the try line is increasingly rare. Thanks to the ever improving accuracy of goal kickers and the more frequent use of the drop goal, the value of tries may have been somewhat diminished in recent years, yet the men who can find their way over the try line are still worth their weight in gold. There has been no player more successful in crossing the whitewash in Heineken Cup history than the flamboyant French man Vincent Clerc. The Toulouse man is the proud owner of three winners medals and his constant presence on the score sheet was a reoccurring theme when Toulouse were in their pomp. In a team that contained so many stars, Clerc shone brightest with his thrilling line runs and last ditch tackles.
With 35 tries in his 73 appearances, Clerc’s strike rate of just over 1 try every 2 games is comparable with the very best finishers in European Rugby. His blistering burst of speed belied his slight figure and he has remained a constant menace to defences throughout his 12 seasons amongst Europe’s elite. The consistency of his scoring over the years marks him out from the pack. With the exception of this past season, when he only lined out once for Toulouse due to injury, he never completed a European campaign without scoring, while he has also finished as top scorer in three separate tournaments. Throughout his career in the Blue of France, where he was a regular scourge to the Irish, his try scoring rate was equally impressive as he notched up 32 in his 65 tests.
Clerc’s debut campaign in Europe in 2003 was as close to a dream as possible for a 20-year-old, he scored 7 times, including for Toulouse’s only try in the all French final against Perpignan, as he claimed the first of his hat trick of European titles. His low centre of gravity aided the winger in his ability to evade defenders and the image of Clerc ducking past the despairing attempted tackles of the last defender is one that will remain long in the memory after his retirement. There are many players who are great try scorers, but few are of the calibre of Clerc . While this try is the one that will still be haunting Irish players from 2007, it showcases the wingers tenacity and scoring ability in the most tense and fickle of situations.
While crossing for tries is what Clerc will be most remembered for, his creativity on the field is often overlooked. He was a hard worker for his team and never shirked ball carrying responsibility. He had great vision and followed the play so cleverly he could pounce and take advantage of the slightest of gaps that may appear in a defensive line. For one so prolific in an attacking sense, his defensive capabilities are often undermined also. In a game of giants, the small winger never gave an inch in the tackle and threw himself full blooded into every collision he could. He has often left much bigger opponents on their backsides with textbook tackles, while his refusal to give up a lost cause is highlighted here as he somehow managed to chase back and prevent a certain score with a dramatic last ditch tackle.
Clerc’s haul of three winners medals is impressive, but his tally of four final appearances is even more so. Had injury not prevented him making the final against Munster in 2008, he would have gone down as the player with the most final appearances in the history of the competition with 5. Also, considering he had scored 5 tries in his 7 outings before injury struck in that 2008 campaign, there was every possibility he could have played a key role in such a tightly contested game in ’08.
This season has been largely frustrating for the 32 year old who has struggled for fitness throughout the year. With his side needing to rejuvenate a squad that has fallen behind the new batch of big spenders in France, Clerc’s time in the famed Toulouse jersey could be coming to an end. He won’t create the same records or memories in the new European Rugby Champions Cup that he did in the Heineken Cup, with or without Toulouse, but there will always be room for an explosive, proven finisher like Clerc in the game.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.
Check out the rest of our countdown of the Greatest Heineken Cup Players of All Time here.
Featured Image By Cyclone30 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.