The man who would be King
January 14, 2013
Alex King has helped mastermind Clermont's recent success © Getty Images
There are very few rugby men in Europe that are as well accustomed to silverware as Alex King. Two Heineken Cup victories and four Premiership titles during his playing days with London Wasps testify to that.
A fly-half with one of the most dominant English teams of the professional era, he would later take his leadership skills, impressive game control and winning mentality to Clermont Auvergne where he helped turn a talented group of players starved of success into an extraordinary winning machine and, in the process, added the Top 14 crown to his résumé.
King initially crossed the Channel back in 2007 to pull on the famous yellow and blue shirt of the Marcel Michelin idols and has since made it his home - switching from player to skills coach in 2008 where he has since worked under Vern Cotter and his assistant Joe Schmidt, and now Franck Azema. Currently second in the Top 14 table and with five Heineken Cup wins in a row this season, including back-to-back wins against reigning champions Leinster, Aurelien Rougerie's side appear on course for another dominant campaign. "It has been a long process," said King. "Vern took charge of the club in 2006 and has laid down the foundations, recruited well and we have worked on our style and mentality."
It has been a bumpy road though, with their 2010 Top 14 triumph, a long-awaited success that ended an incredible streak of three consecutive defeats in the title decider, offset by their failure to repeat that success at home and an agonising defeat to Leinster in last season's Heineken Cup semi-finals. "I guess it all helped us to get to the point where we are now," added King. "We got a huge confidence boost with that 2010 title and we learned a precious lesson in the loss against Leinster last year and we are now a more mature team and determined to keep improving as we enter the crucial part of the season."
That quest for excellence has produced 17 wins in the 20 games they have played so far this season, an amazing 85% success - the same as Toulon and just behind Ulster who have suffered just two defeats. "We are satisfied with what we have done so far this season but we are very aware that we have yet to achieve our season targets," added King. "Entering the last two rounds of Heineken Cup pool stage there were 12/14 teams fighting for the quarter-finals and they are all very good sides. If you think that almost half of those teams will be out of the competition in a few days, you can understand why the Heineken Cup is considered such a competitive environment."
With a place in the quarter-finals already secured, Clermont will now re-focus on the Dublin finale. "Now the road will get even tougher," said King. "Toulon, Toulouse, Harlequins, Ulster, Saracens and the Tigers are all very good teams and to win the Heineken Cup we will need to win three very hard matches. From now, every single mistake may cost you a lot and teams will have to perform under a huge amount of pressure."
It would appear that the French clubs hold an advantage over their rivals for the Heineken Cup, with larger budgets luring a host of international stars but there is an ongoing debate over the need to protect France's younger player. "It's a very delicate situation," explained King. "On one hand you have the clear advantage of having some of the brightest stars of international rugby in your side and the boost that gives to the overall standard of the Top 14. But on the other hand you need to protect French youngsters and grant them the opportunity to develop their skills and gain experience for the benefit of the national side.
"If it's important to raise the quality of the domestic competition so to give French players the chance to compete every week at the highest possible level, it is also crucial that the Top 14 continues to give the French national team every chance to compete with the best sides in the world. At the end of the day, it all comes down to each club's perspective. I think that Clermont have made some very good decisions on the matter by bringing in players that helped develop talented young prospects like Wesley Fofana, Alexandre Lapandry and Jean-Marcel Buttin, just to name a few."
Clermont celebrate their historic Top 14 triumph © Getty Images
But surely the more generous salary cap in the Top 14 remains a trump card for the French clubs? "The Premiership is a very good competition as well," said King. "The English clubs have been forced to invest in their youngsters and so a lot of great players in their early 20s have exploded onto the scene in the last couple of seasons. The academy system is working so well in England that clubs with financial difficulties in the past are set to succeed as a result of introducing young players. For example, Wasps have managed to develop players like Joe Launchbury, Christian Wade, Eliot Daly and Billy Vunipola to name just a few and are now a force once again in the Premiership and in Amlin Challenge Cup as well."
At the end of the current season, King will return to the Premiership having agreed to join Jim Mallinder's support staff at Northampton Saints. "My years in France have been very important in my development as a player and coach," explained King. "Here in Clermont I have experienced a different way of thinking and that unique approach has certainly influenced the learning curve I am on as a coach and I can't thank Vern enough for allowing me the opportunity to start my coaching career here at Clermont."
On his forthcoming move to the Saints where he will step into the shoes vacated by Paul Grayson, he added: "I am so excited to join Northampton. I have known Jim since my time at Wasps and I think he is a great coach and rugby man. He has made a huge impact during his years at Franklin's Garden, as did Paul Grayson. The team is a very good mix of international stars, experienced quality players and young talent. They have Dylan Hartley who is a well respected leader and that's another key point. I really look forward to working with him and Dorian West to help the team develop and fulfil their great potential."
If reports are to be believed, then King was also one of the few names Connacht chief executive Tom Sears had hoped may replace Eric Elwood at the Sportsground at the end of the season, "Let's only say I had some other options" said King, "and that I decided to accept the one I found right for me and my growth as a coach."
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
Ask John answers questions on the Leopards' tour to Italy in 1974, brotherly Test sides, Pat McGrath, England's games against the Barbarians and Jacques Brunel
"We were only five metres away in the last Test of getting that try and with Jonny's inevitable conversion, we'd have won it." Tom Hamilton talks to Lions fullback Matt Perry
Toulon's Heineken Cup final victory over Clermont Auvergne may have ended a long title drought for the Top 14 club but two of their players are no strangers to success