Vincent Clerc ended his playing career with 171 tries as a professional but when it comes to the Guinness Six Nations, one stands out above all the rest.
Ask any Irishman about the diminutive France winger and a cold February day at Croke Park will spring to mind.
Back in 2007 Ireland had swung the game their way and led 17-13 with two minutes remaining as France lined up for a restart.
A minute later Clerc and France were celebrating and Les Bleus would go on to win the Championship.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 8, 2019
As Clerc recalls, that first-ever rugby game at Croke Park was about so much more than rugby.
“That game in 2007 is one of the most powerful memories for me for many reasons. When you score in the final minutes of a game to win, that doesn’t happen every day,” he said.
“Then there was so much else going on around that match. We’d been told a lot about the historical context, it was the first time a non-Gaelic sport had been played in a Gaelic stadium, there was the massacre that had taken place, we knew there was a lot of emotion.
“That emotion was contagious, it was one of the very few times I cried during the opposition anthem.
“There was also the context that I’d missed the 2003 World Cup, and I wasn’t yet sure of a place in 2007. In fact, I don’t think I would have gone. I had a chance and knew I had to take it to go to a World Cup on home soil. The game went well but with that little extra of a try in the final minute to kickstart our campaign and in the end win the Championship, it was an incredible emotion.
“It helped me take the next step and secure my place at the World Cup but also it was a turning point in my career.”
For Clerc, it was the start of a love affair of games against Ireland. Later that year he scored two tries against them in a crucial World Cup group game, the following spring he got a Championship hat-trick in Paris.
As he says, that try was a turning point – a moment of destiny.
He remembers: “We got the ball back from the restart and it went down the right with some quick ball. You realise that everything is down to instinct. It was disorganised but the desire was there to go and get the win. We could have lost a couple of balls but people reacted and threw themselves on it.
“When I got the ball it was pure instinct. I decided to cut in, because the defence was drifting but it wasn’t a case of spotting a prop in front of me.
“From there, when you’re near the line and you’ve made the decision to go for it, you don’t know if it’s the right decision. But you know that you have to go 200 percent because you’ve felt something.
“Strangely a few minutes earlier I said to myself that if I scored I would grab the cockerel to my chest. I didn’t really celebrate tries but that one I knew I would. It came a few minutes later so it must have been destiny.
“It seemed to go well for me against Ireland. We had a similar way of playing, both teams were really attacking and often it would be one half for them and then one for us or vice versa. So we would dominate and they would come back. There were lots of turnovers and we were good when it came to counter-attacking ball. So whether it was at the World Cup in 2007 or the Six Nations the following year when I scored a hat-trick, I did have some really success against the Irish, and thankfully they didn’t hold it against me too much. It might even have brought us closer.”
SHEDDING THE SCRUM CAP
France went onto win the Championship in 2007, which would be Clerc’s third after successes the previous year and a Grand Slam in 2004.
The winger had enjoyed a rapid rise, going from the Under-21 Six Nations in 2002 to playing for the national team later eight months later.
During those first seasons at the highest level, he stood out with his red scrum cap – a vestige of a serious ear injury suffered as a youngster.
It was during that first Grand Slam that he made the decision to get rid of the cap that he had come to be known for.
“I took it off in 2004 during the Championship, I was a replacement at Murrayfield and I said to myself that if I came on, which would only be a short period, I wouldn’t wear it. I didn’t come on but still decided to stop wearing it,” he remembers.
“It was a strange one, I’d worn it initially because I’d got an ear injury and needed lots of stitches. From then it was kind of a protection, I wore it at age group level and then I went from there to Pro D2 then into the Top 14 with Toulouse and the European Cup before the French team.
“I’d got that far with it so it became hard to take off. But it also hindered me because you don’t hear as much, you end up being more focused on yourself and not as open to what else is going on. As I’d been asked to work on that part of my game, it made sense to take it off. I stopped wearing it at training but I’d struggled to do it in matches until that game in the Championship.”
BRIDGING THE GENERATIONS
Although he is best known for playing on the wing, Clerc actually spent his formative years in the centres, with his idols in the 90s Thomas Castaignède and Emile Ntamack among others.
He would go onto play alongside Ntamack at Toulouse, and it has now come full circle as Romain Ntamack takes his first steps in the national side.
Clerc revealed: “I went to watch the first match of the Championship against Wales. I was actually lucky enough to watch it next to Emile Ntamack as he watched his son’s first match so that was very cool.”
It was in those Toulouse teams that he enjoyed his greatest success, scoring the majority of his 101 league tries – the record in the French top flight.
With their bright orange boots he and Cédric Heymans formed a devastating duo for club and country.
As Toulouse re-establish themselves in the Top 14 and with cohort of young players led by Ntamack, Antoine Dupont and Thomas Ramos in the French team, Clerc believes there are reasons for optimism.
He explained: “It’s a good sign for France, seeing these youngsters and the way they play. They have taken each step quickly but with maturity. They have managed to establish themselves with Toulouse in the Top 14 and in the European Cup and now with the French team.
“There is no minimum age, these are players who have taken control because they have the talent at that age.
“It’s pleasing because they have that altruism, enjoyment and initiative. I saw that at Toulouse and it’s good to see it again. They keep the ball alive, play with continuity and you see they enjoy it. It’s great to see a young French generation coming through.
“You see an identity. Toulouse have had this identity for years and they have always wanted to keep that philosophy.
“It’s great to want to pass on that philosophy from generation to generation.”
For Clerc, his record-breaking 101st try was a fitting way to bring the curtain down on a career that saw him finish with two Grand Slams and a further two titles.
He has stayed busy in retirement, albeit making the most of the freedom to go on a first skiing holiday in 15 years.
But his post-playing plans have been in the pipeline for a long time. He set up an events company called Team One Group with Philippe Spanghero and former Toulouse and France teammate Grégory Lamboley a decade ago, while he has since joined forces with Clément Poitrenaud in another venture and other sportsmen like footballer Blaise Matuidi and basketball player Boris Diaw in a third.
Add in some commentary for Canal Plus and Clerc still keeps very busy. From an Irish perspective, the fact he will not be on the pitch again may come as a relief.