Sarries must prepare to take leaf out of Hill's book
European preview: Londoners can follow example of former flanker against stellar French opponents
Saracens v Clermont Auvergne
The last time Saracens played a Heineken Cup knockout tie in the tumbledown surroundings of Vicarage Road – against the Ospreys, the Welsh "galacticos", almost exactly four years ago – they cocked a snook at their long-odds status by progressing to the semi-finals. Tomorrow, they face another stellar team of all the talents in Clermont Auvergne. The differences? This time, they are anything but outsiders. And this time, they do not have a man by the name of Richard Hill in the back row of their pack.
Hill's brink-of-retirement performance against Ospreys was one of the wonders of the age, not least because he found himself playing with only one fully functioning knee against an opponent as good as the All Black flanker Marty Holah.
Saracens have worked hard to fill the gap left by the finest English loose forward of the post-war era and when they are at full strength, they come close to succeeding. But Kelly Brown, Jacques Burger and Andy Saull are all out injured and given the French club's riches in the back-row department, the Premiership champions will do well to compensate here.
If Clermont look powerful up front, they are positively scary outside the scrum. Sitiveni Sivivatu, Aurélien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana and Julien Malzieu... that is some three-quarter line. Saracens, who have the England centre Brad Barritt back in midfield, will need to be at their most resourceful.
Edinburgh v Toulouse
Clermont are one of two outstanding performers in this season's French Top 14 tournament. The others, as always, are Toulouse. On the face of it, an Edinburgh side in domestic freefall have next to no chance of prevailing today, even at an unusually well-populated Murrayfield, but the visitors have had the odd funny moment in Scotland down the years – they actually lost in the capital in 2003 – and will be just a little wary. Especially in the back-row department, where the home side's free-running international combination of Ross Rennie and David Denton could produce something out of the ordinary.
Leinster v Cardiff Blues
This afternoon's set-to in Dublin has a one-way look about it. Leinster, the reigning champions, have Brian O'Driscoll in their European mix for the first time this season: a significant factor, even when the opposition are feeling good about themselves. The Blues do not feel good, or anything approaching it. Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts, two of their go-to men, have already gone, so to speak – as has Gavin Henson, sacked earlier this week for being rubbish in drink. Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Casey Laulala, Lloyd Williams and Gethin Jenkins are top-notch talents, but you fear for them all the same.
Munster v Ulster
It should be some occasion down Limerick way tomorrow. The Munster of old would have been extremely confident of winning against the men from the north, but the Munster of today have a more fragile air about them. Ulster, bolstered by the presence of the outstanding Stephen Ferris at blindside flanker and armed with a trump card of the Springbok variety in the scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, have a distinctly lean and hungry look about them. The odds are just about with the home side, but the ambitious visitors will not die wondering.
Wasps v Biarritz
Biarritz had a horrible time of it in the Top 14 until Dimitri Yachvili, the best game-managing No 9 in world rugby, returned to the side after spells at the World Cup and on the treatment table. Since his reappearance, they have improved no end, both in domestic and European terms. Yachvili starts today's Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final, as does the former England full-back Iain Balshaw and the unfeasibly rapid American wing Takudzwa Ngwenya. And what of Wasps? They will field a bunch of brave, utterly committed kids. As per usual.
Brive v Scarlets
Brive, a significant power in the early days of the Heineken Cup but now a mere shadow of the 1997 title-winning side, have the former red-rose midfielder Shane Geraghty at fly-half – pretty much the only recognisable figure from a British and Irish perspective. The Welsh region travel in full warpaint, however, with the eye-catching Six Nations backs George North and Jonathan Davies, not to mention the Lions hooker Matthew Rees and the molten-hot England No 8 Ben Morgan.
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