One way or another, this afternoon’s “big beast” semi-final at Twickenham will mark the demise of something far more substantial than a mere Heineken Cup campaign. For Saracens, the end of the highly successful Steve Borthwick era is nigh: when the freshly-minted European Rugby Champions Cup is launched in the autumn, the former England captain will be doing something else with his time, quite possibly in the coaching field.
The Frenchmen will also have a splash of sentiment in their motivational mix: Vern Cotter, the New Zealander who has played a central role in establishing Clermont as the leading team in Europe, will end his eight-year coaching stint in the Auvergne in the summer and head for Scotland, where he faces the interesting challenge of reasserting the national team’s claim to Test relevance.
Clermont are a shock-and-awe side: hugely powerful up front, tactically astute at half-back and blessed with a back line boasting all the talents. Though Aurélien Rougerie, their long-serving centre, has failed to recover from injury, Wesley Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga will take some stopping.
Yet Saracens, sufficiently strong in personnel to leave players as effective as Richard Wigglesworth and Chris Wyles on the bench, know Clermont, all but unbeatable at home, are a lot less scary on the road. They have the physicality to match the visitors in the back row, boast an ultra-reliable line-out and man the barricades with a rare passion. If it comes down to goal-kicking, as well it might, the Owen Farrell-Marcelo Bosch axis may just shade it against Morgan Parra and Brock James.
Toulon v Munster
Tomorrow, kick-off: 3.30pm
The reigning champions did for Leinster with something to spare at the quarter-final stage and with Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau resuming their chalk-and-cheese partnership in midfield, we can be sure that life will be just as hard for the latest band of Irishmen to materialise on the Côte d’Azur. But Munster, with Paul O’Connell stoking the fires up front and Conor Murray fanning the flames at scrum-half, are better equipped to make a fight of it off the back foot.
They would fancy their chances a little more had the teak-tough flanker Peter O’Mahony been fit to play, but the South African signing C J Stander is nobody’s pushover and can be expected to dispute possession enthusiastically with the all-star Toulon breakaway unit.
Wilkinson’s relentless goal-kicking alone ensures the French side start as favourites, even though the tie has been shifted along the coast to Marseille. That said, Munster have a glorious history of epic victories in foreign lands.
Wasps v Bath
Tomorrow, kick-off: 1pm
It comes to something when fortunes up front depend on a tight-head prop in his first season as a professional, but the Wasps management have not been slow to acknowledge the importance of Cardiff University graduate Jake Cooper-Woolley to their forward effort. The newcomer’s injury problems give Bath an obvious advantage in tomorrow’s Amlin Cup semi-final. Cooper-Woolley was also missing when the West Countrymen visited Adams Park on Premiership business and shunted their hosts’ scrum all over Buckinghamshire in winning by a distance.