Saracens have some demons to vanquish. They do not fair well against French teams – in the last two seasons they have been knocked out by opposition from across the channel, and in the group stages this season they lost both home and away to Toulouse. Two years ago it was this very team that did for them in their own back yard, so revenge will be high on the agenda. Clermont, meanwhile, will still have memories of last season’s somewhat unjust final loss fresh in the mind, and will be raring to give themselves the opportunity to right that perceived wrong, starting with a win at Twickenham on Saturday.
They will be fresh, after sending a second string line-up to Newcastle in the Aviva Premiership last weekend. Their big name players will return, and the youngsters that couldn’t deal with the pressure of this type of occasion in the past couple of years – the likes of Mako Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode – have all matured to the stage where they feel comfortable on the biggest stage.
That said, if they play how they did at Ravenhill in the quarters they will get slaughtered. Up against 14 men, they should have put the game far beyond doubt but a lack of composure and poor decision making saw them hanging on in the dying minutes. Against 15 hungry Jaunards, they will not be so lucky.
The front row battle will be key. Mako Vunipola starts at loosehead and has had his issues at the scrum this year, while James Johnstone also intriguingly get the nod ahead of Matt Stevens. The big Samoan has not always been first choice for the big games since moving to Allianz Park, and has struggled at times with the new scrum laws. Up against the technically proficient Thomas Domingo, he will have to be at his best.
Jacques Burger will fancy his chances at the breakdown against Damien Chouly, while in the backs Marcelo Bosch is starting to look like a really classy acquisition to what is a functional backline.
Everyone knows about their astounding home record, but away from the bearpit/cauldron/(insert metaphor as appropriate) of a home stadium, they are not the same team. Despite good wins on the road in the Heineken Cup this year, in Llanelli and London, their general form away from the Marcel Michelin has been poor.
If they start slowly and concede early points, they will not be able to count on their superb home support to haul them back into it – then it becomes a test of inner strength, of whether they truly are a great team or just a very good one.
Either way, their team sheet is littered with quality. A powerful but also technical front row of Domingo, Kayser and Zirakashvili, backed up by the experience of Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore in the engine room, gives them a solid platform. Captain Julien Bonnaire is a Heineken Cup legend and one of the best line-out forwards around, while Fritz Lee is a hugely powerful but also dynamic ball carrier. In the backs they have the brilliance of Sivivatu, Nalaga and Fofana, all waiting to be set free by Morgan Parra and Brock James.
Good luck picking the weakness in that lot.
Head to head: Owen Farrell v Brock James
It was tempting to go for Vunipola v Lee, which will be pure box office, but realistically the two out halves will have far more influence over the result. Farrell had a rare off day with the boot against Ulster; had he kicked his goals the game would have been out of sight long before the final whistle. He needs to find the composure that so impressed for England in the Six Nations. James played a masterclass in game management in the first half against the Tigers in the quarter-finals – if he can do that and put the likes of Strettle and Ashton on the back foot, then Clermont will dominate. Without the burden of goal-kicking, which has in the past undermined his confidence when things start to go awry, he has the vision to unleash the likes of Fofana and Sivivatu outside him.
Clermont’s chances take a huge knock with the loss of Aurélien Rougerie to injury – Benson Stanley is a quality replacement, but he does not bleed yellow and blue as the club captain does, which is what you need on occasions like this. They have spoken of channelling the hurt of last season’s loss into this season, but to make it to the final they must beat the Premiership league leaders. Saracens, a couple of blips aside, have looked immense this season – far more commandeering than in previous years, even when they were making finals and winning titles. If they can take an early lead and maintain it, Clermont will find it difficult to come back without their manic supporters at their back. It will be close, but Saracens look better equipped to deal with the challenge from across the channel this year. Saracens by 3.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images