ASM Clermont Auvergne head coach Franck Azéma is thrilled to be back in the Heineken Champions Cup after guiding his side to Challenge Cup glory last season.  

“We’re really excited,” said the 48-year-old of Clermont’s return, which begins with games against Harlequins, Ulster Rugby and Bath Rugby in Pool 3. 

“Last year we weren’t in this competition and we switched to the Challenge Cup. We tried to honour it and that’s what we did. Of course, we’re really looking forward to getting back into this competition and to playing against teams who are used to playing in this tournament again.  

“I think it’s the very best at a European level. We know that, in the northern hemisphere, this competition is consistent and rewarding for the players and the clubs.  

“There’s a lot of media surrounding it. We know that it’s almost at an international level in terms of intensity, or not far off, anyway. That requires everyone to raise their game.” 

Azéma has twice come close to leading Clermont to the trophy – in 2015, when they lost the final 24-18 to RC Toulon, and two years later, when they went down 28-17 to Saracens in the decider – but he does have happy memories of the tournament as well.   

I remember the big moments at Lyon and Saint-Étienne, the moments we were able to share with our fans against Leinster or Munster,” he recalledThe battles with Saracens were also significant, so these are teams that we’re used to playing. 

“Of course, I remember the finals too and the disappointment and frustration that can go hand in hand with them, so I mostly remember those images. They bring back strong, intense emotions; each time it’s a huge challenge to overcome.” 

Azéma feels there will be extra motivation for French clubs to reach the final this season, with the decider taking place in Marseille on May 23.  

“Of course, it’s exciting,” he said. “It shouldn’t be an end in itself, but, naturally, it helps the fans a little. It’s a great stadium too. The [Stade] Vélodrome is one of the best, so we would obviously love to be there, even more so because we’d have the chance to play in front of our own fans.”