The fantastic four collide in London and Marseille this weekend to see who will contest the last ever Heineken Cup final in the Welsh capital on May 24th. Saracens welcome Clermont Auvergne to the home of rugby whereas Munster travel to the newly refurbished Stade Velódrome to try and derail Toulon’s plans of two in-a-row. However, I am concerning myself with the action that is taking place at Twickenham.
1. Clermont’s power will crush Saracens.
The Barnet-based side are flying high in the Premiership but they have shown that when they take on the French clubs in Europe, Saracens are incapable of competing with big packs that dominate their opponents up front. A non-vintage Toulouse outfit this season have shown Saracens’ forward deficiencies, as the Rouge et Noir dismantled Mark McCall’s well-oiled machine at Wembley and the Stade Ernest Wallon.
Through a combination of scrum power, lineout efficiency and mighty mauling Toulouse negated the Fez Heads’ strengths of isolating ball carriers and winning turnovers. Clermont’s rampaging forwards are just as big and effective as their French counterparts and will look to follow the Toulousain template.
2. Saracens’ conservatism and lack of adventure will end their European Odyssey.
The Saracens play a very basic game where they kick for territory and use an excellent run chase to squeeze the opposition into giving away penalties. This may work against lesser teams in the English league however, when Sarries are competing with a side like Clermont, who will dominate in terms of the set piece and possession, a game plan of kick and containment is a recipe for defeat.
Clermont’s ability to hold onto the ball is much vaunted and if the likes of Wesley Fofana and Sitiveni Sivivatu are given plenty of opportunities to attack the Saracens’ defence, as good as it is, it will crack. Les Jaunards’ critics will point out that Toulon are equally as conservative as Saracens and yet defeated Clermont in the final last year. But the Toulonnais possessed an enormous pack which could go toe to toe with Clermont up front. The Fez Heads do not have this luxury.
3. Plan B.
Clermont love to use the strike runners in the backline to cut opposing defences to shreds. But, when needs must, they will roll up their sleeves and dog it out up front and eke out penalties for Morgan Parra to slot over. At Ravenhill Saracens were afforded a massive advantage when Jared Payne was given his marching orders after only four minutes and it was a sign for the Barnet club to kick on and put Ulster away. However, Mark McCall’s men refused to deviate from the plan. This resulted in Ulster having 57 percent of possession and forced the English club side to defend for their lives at the end in order to come out of Belfast with a win.
4. No 16th man.
The game will take place at Twickenham, effectively a home semi-final for the English team. Despite this, Saracens cannot count on a fanatic following to drive them onto Cardiff as the Fez Heads do not have a hard core support like the French or Irish provinces. Last year in their semi-final against Toulon, only 25,000 turned up to support Saracens and the team produced a performance like the atmosphere; flat. As rugby pundit, Stuart Barnes pointed out, “it is alright selling out Wembley when tickets are between five and ten pounds but when people are asked to stump up fifty pounds for a crunch game, Saracens find that their support is found wanting.”
5. Clermont’s drive to right the wrongs of games gone by.
It is a sense of now or never for this Clermont side. Many of their players, including Captain Aurélien Rougerie, are in the twilight of their careers and this may be this group’s last chance to climb Europe’s summit. The Montferrand side have a notorious history of losing big knock out ties in the Top 14 and Heineken Cup; the final last year the most recent. Saracens will look to prey on French nerves, but Clermont coach Vern Cotter who is leaving for pastures new at the end of the season, will make sure that Les Jaunards’ crusade to European redemption will not end this weekend in London.
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.
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