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Champions Cup offers hope for Nick Abendanon and Clermont

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WATCH: Jordie Barrett's conversion from an impossible angle (0:10)

The All Blacks' Jordie Barrett showed off his impressive skills to convert a goal kick from a near impossible angle. (0:10)

As Nick Abendanon embarked on a ticker tape laden lap of honour at the Stade de France last June, he could not have envisaged the rollercoaster season that would follow.

The former England fullback had just helped Clermont to a second Top 14 title, banishing the memory of their third European Cup final defeat three weeks previously in the process. The following day 60,000 fans painted the university city in central France yellow and blue as they gave their returning heroes an unforgettable homecoming.

It was the kind of moment that had convinced Abendanon to leave Bath -- the club where he had envisaged spending his entire career -- and move to Clermont-Ferrand. Unfortunately for all involved with the French champions, however, the hangover from those celebrations has been long and painful.

A campaign that started with an opening weekend defeat to Bordeaux-Begles in the Top 14 has never got back on track amid an injury list that would make even the most dedicated club doctor wince. Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra, Isaia Toeava, Alivereti Raka and Greig Laidlaw have all spent considerable time in the treatment room this season.

Franck Azema has been able to coax performances out of his talented squad -- Clermont qualfied top of Pool 2 losing just one of six matches and beating European champions Saracens home and away -- but a lack of consistency in selection has hindered the team.

Clermont's plight was neatly summed up by a 49-0 defeat at Toulon last Sunday. It left them ninth in the Top 14 and as they prepare for a home quarterfinal against Racing this weekend, Clermont know they must win this season's Champions Cup if they want to play in the competition next year.

"It takes a big toll when your best players are dropping around you like flies, it's a bit of a knock to the confidence," Abendanon told ESPN.

"It's not as though they've been little muscle strains, a lot of injuries this year have been big ACLs [anterior cruciate ligaments], they've been knees, Camille Lopez's open fracture, Damian Penaud's broken foot, Isaia Toeava's broken foot, so they've been pretty big injuries for us.

"It certainly takes a toll on the team because a lot of the players have had to play game after game after game like Fritz Lee and Benjamin Kayser. So, then you can't rotate them and boys get tired.

"It's a whole waterfall effect that cascades through the team."

Lopez and Parra returned at Toulon last weekend as Azema made 13 changes to his starting XV. Racing would have been on the coach's mind as he finalised his team for the Top 14 clash, but many of his adjustments this season have been dictated by injuries.

In the five weeks leading into this weekend's quarterfinal, Clermont have lined up with five different half-back combinations. It should not be a surprise that the team has struggled for consistency on the pitch too.

"The hardest part [this season] is just the amount of changes we've had to make to the team. There's been no continuity with the team that can be selected," Abendanon added.

"People are coming in, people are going out, it makes things very difficult to find a bit of fluidity between a backline if it's always chopping and changing. Same with the forward pack.

"Mentally it's been very tough, at a club like ASM [Clermont] there's a huge amount of pressure on us to perform which we haven't been doing. So, now things are getting pretty toasty in terms of the fans and the management, etc.

"It's been a completely different season to what we were used to last season but you've got to go through these patches to learn and to try to come out the other side better."

That last sentiment will be familiar to England fans following the recent travails of Eddie Jones' side in the Six Nations. But there is no chance they will see Abendanon in a white shirt again.

The fullback, 31, who has two England caps, says there was "no need to go searching anywhere else" before he signed a new deal until 2020 with Clermont at the beginning of the season. "I've started my family here, we've got a good set up and I didn't see really much point in making that change for no particular reason," he added.

Abendanon is a big part of that set up and despite a season in which his leadership skills have been tested both on and off the pitch, the man who never wanted to leave south-west England is focused on seeing out his career in central France.

"I thought I'd finish my rugby days at Bath," he said. "But I've come out here, made a pretty good crack at it and I've absolutely loved it.

"I've had some experiences here that I know I would never have had in the Premiership and all in all I'd say I enjoy my rugby a lot more than I did back home."