Saracens v Clermont Auvergne preview: Sarries must find way to stifle French flair

Saracens take on Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham on Saturday in the first of next weekend’s Heineken Cup semi-finals with so much to win or lose for both sides. Our scouting dossier for Saturday’s epic Heineken Cup semi-final

Rugby Correspondent

Try threat

Clermont select from astounding strength in the back three, with France wing Julien Malzieu fit to vie with Sitiveni Sivivatu and Noa Nakaitaci for a spot alongside the likely starters Lee Byrne and Napolioni Nalaga, the Fijian wing who is built like a tower block but moves like a Maserati. Tries have come easy to Saracens’ Chris Ashton in Europe this season and his total of nine is one short of the Heineken Cup record set by Brive flyer  Sébastien Carrat in 1996-97. As a unit, Ashton, Dave Strettle and Alex Goode rely on stealth whereas Clermont major in the explosive.

Advantage: Clermont

All-star front row

Schalk Brits has rediscovered his magnificent open-field running, while Mako Vunipola’s athleticism and passing make him a winner in any “this prop’s got talent” contest. But the Saracens pair have a challenger in Davit Zirakashvili, judging by the Georgian’s lovely offload for Wesley Fofana’s crucial try in Clermont’s Heineken quarter-final win over Leicester. “Saracens are more of a threat round the field than when we beat them two years ago,” Nathan Hines, the Clermont lock, observed. “They’re all multi-taskers and that’s a big danger.” In the tight, Vunipola literally labours under continual questions over his scrummaging and Clermont have top operators in Vincent Debaty, Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser and Jamie Cudmore able to get on his case.

Advantage: Saracens, overall

Injuries and preparations

Saracens have suffered significant blows in losing the in-form second-row George Kruis and back-rower Ernst Joubert to injuries. On the plus side Mouritz Botha’s energetic pressure helped make a try for Strettle against Northampton last week, Billy Vunipola is a powerful threat with his kick returns and blasts off the scrum, and  Saracens will always be confident of forcing turnovers at the defensive breakdown. Owen Farrell set alarm bells clanging when he winced at a foot injury after a kick against Northampton, and he and almost the entire first team are rested from today’s not-a-must-win trip to Newcastle. Niggling problems have afflicted half-a-dozen Clermont front-liners of late but if there were no new mishaps in a tough and important league match away to Racing Metro last night, the Massif Central men may travel to London at full strength.

Advantage: Clermont

Picking up the points

Clermont’s astonishing 76-match winning run at home has been founded on drop-goals nailed by Brock James and penalties kicked by Morgan Parra. But this is Twickenham where Farrell hammered Wales with kicks from the tee and out of hand a mere six weeks ago. The 22-year-old fly-half has had a few wobbles more recently but he will surely feel more at home at England’s headquarters than Parra, whose record with France there is played three, lost three. As for James, his only previous experience at the stadium (trivia buffs, this one’s for you) was playing Sevens for Australia in 2003. “Brock’s a perfectionist,” Hines said. “He’ll rip out a drop goal when we need it.” For kicks from distance Saracens can turn to Marcelo Bosch, possibly the signing of the season as a replacement for the injured Joel Tomkins, and fresh from a 56-metre penalty that helped beat Northampton.

Advantage: Saracens

Borthers v Big Vern

Two hard men quitting their current roles this summer may give rise to a powerful sentiment of “let’s do it for him”. Saracens’ captain Steve Borthwick is in the last weeks of his playing career, though you can bet his primary concern next Saturday will be outwitting Julien Bonnaire in the line-out. Vern Cotter has been  Clermont’s head coach since 2006 but will be departing soon to take charge of Scotland. Each is in pursuit of a league and European double. Will they win one trophy or two – or none at all?

Advantage: Level pegging

Need to succeed

Clermont’s legendary run of near misses included 10 losing French Championship finals until they landed the title at last in 2010 to go with two less illustrious European Challenge Cups. But they haven’t reached a French final since then and the “choker” jibes rightly resurfaced when they tossed away a winning position in the Heineken final against Toulon last season. Saracens have been almost as profligate. They finished top of the Premiership last season – the position they occupy now – but had nothing shiny to show for it after losing in the semi-finals of the  Premiership, Heineken Cup and LV Cup. Since the start of the Brendan Venter-Mark McCall coaching regime in 2009, they have reached just two finals from a possible 13, and won one trophy: the Premiership in 2011.

Advantage: Saracens marginally more desperate

Verdict

Sarries’ home-town advantage will be worth five points, but if Clermont are properly in the mood then they can edge it.

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