Winning European Cup finals is hard enough, but successfully defending is what separates the great from the good. On Saturday, Saracens have their shot at joining the few before them to have won consecutive Champions Cup finals, but a familiar foe stands in their way.
For years now, Clermont Auvergne have been the perennial bridesmaids, coming within inches of winning title after title – 21 times, no less – only to fall at the final hurdle. Their return to the top of the French game coincided with the emergence of Saracens as a genuine European force at the start of the decade, so Saturday’s final at Murrayfield feels like the clash we’ve been waiting for: Europe’s two heavyweights in the biggest game of them all.
Saracens head into the clash as the favourites among the bookmakers, the experts and most of the fans. Since their Six Nations clan returned in March, Saracens have played some of the best rugby in their history to dispatch both Glasgow Warriors and Munster in this competition, the latter of which came in a mightily impressive showing at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in front of close to 50,000 rampant Irishmen and women.
The north London outfit also enter the match not just as the reigning champions but as last season’s double winner, a feat they hope to achieve again this year by dispatching Clermont this weekend before facing Exeter Chiefs and either Wasps or Leicester Tigers in the Premiership final, should they get there. Win in Edinburgh and they will also set a new record of matches unbeaten in Europe, breaking Leinster’s record set in their back-to-back championship-winning years of 2011 and 2012.
Two of those teams mentioned, Leicester and Leinster, are among the three sides who have successfully defended the European Cup before, the third being Toulon who remain the only team to have won three in a row. If Saracens beat Clermont, you would not bet against them matching that feat next season.
But what of Clermont? Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, as the saying goes. They have lost an incredible 21 finals in their history, more than any other club playing in the three main leagues in Europe, but it is their history with Saracens that makes more interesting reading. The two sides have met seven times in as many years, and it’s the Top 14 who hold the clear advantage having won five matches to Sarries’ two.
The last time these two sides met, it was Clermont who emerged victorious in the 2014/15 semi-finals, helping the French team exorcise the demons of the 46-6 mauling they received at Twickenham the season before. But it is not the victory two years ago that will do the most damage for Clermont, it will be their Saracens insider.
Clermont must have been sick at the sight of David Strettle by the time they signed him from Saracens in 2015. The England wing scored four tries in as many matches, and impressed them enough that they moved to sign him ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup that took him out of the running for a place in Stuart Lancaster’s squad.
That Saracens were happy to release Strettle from his contract early to cross the Channel says a lot about the high esteem that is held for the Cheshire-born back at Allianz Park, and their director of rugby, Mark McCall was quick to praise him this week.
“Strettle is playing outstandingly well at the moment, he was playing outstandingly well when he left here,” McCall said.
“We didn’t want him to go but he asked to be released a year early to go and have an adventure in France, which we thought he deserved.
“He’s a player we think very highly of and he’s playing really well at the moment. I’ve stayed in touch with him from time to time but I think he’s still in the players’ WhatsApp group. They might be throwing him a couple of curve balls!”
There may be curveballs ahead of the match but Saracens will hope to keep the ball away from Strettle as much as possible come Saturday, and that may be the overall tactic to keep possession away from the talented Clermont back line and starve them of the chances they need to punish Saracens. It could see the Premiership side revert to the style of play that took them to the double last season, but if it proves successful this time around, there will be no one doubting just how great they are.Reuse content