Saracens hammered the Heineken Cup favourites Clermont 46-6 at Twickenham last week with the definitive defensive performance.
Man of the Match Jacques Burger completed 29 tackles in 70 minutes. Even more impressive was the force of his hits, he drove the attackers behind the gain line. His defensive prowess was a microcosm for the rest of the team.
If Burger set the standards for the defence then Chris Ashton epitomised their attacking capabilities last Saturday. Two tries and one assist simplifies his influence going forward. He frightened his rivals, causing gaps to appear. For the first time since the Australia match for England, Ashton ran the inside lines which gathered recognition and praise.
Whether or not Sarries are within the salary cap (as disputed by others) is an argument for another day. The London outfit certainly consists of strength in depth. Fly-half Owen Farrell was relieved of goal kicking duties for the afternoon with full-back Alex Goode at the helm. He managed 5/6 conversions and 1 penalty, pretty solid for a part-timer. Hooker Schalk Brits was in contention for man of the match also. Carried immensely and executed the basics perfectly.
Their win against Les Jaurnards was more impressive due to the superstars in the visitor’s squad. Sitiveni Sivivatu earned 45 caps for New Zealand, on the opposite wing Naipolioni Nalaga is Clermont’s top try scorer (23) in the Heineken Cup, All of the above are backs, the forwards are equally as remarkable. Davit Zirakashvili, Nathan Hines, Fritz Lee, Jamie Cudmore. All powerful, creating holes whenever they carry the ball.
Clermont are a cohesive unit, with an uncanny ability to implode in the big games. Similar to New Zealand, prior to winning the world cup in 2011, they were favourites for every tournament but choked in the knock-out stages. Now the Top 14 side are eliminated, again.
Saracens from the first minute until the last were relentless in utilising the game-plan set out by head coach Mark McCall. He stated afterwards “The plan was to put them under pressure that they had not been under all season and I think we achieved that.” The ‘Wolf-Pack’ mentality instilled by defence coach, Paul Gustard, was at the forefront. The pack collectively hunted down men in white shirts, forcing them into submission. For all of Clermont’s ability to score numerous tries, they were totally incompetent of scoring any. On one occasion the French side did cross the chalk, however Nigel Owens ruled Owen Farrell was taken out of the game prior. The overruled try was as close as they would come all game.
Vern Cotter was gracious in defeat “Technically, they hurt us quite a lot,” he said. “It was pretty difficult, and we need to congratulate them. Of course, the result is difficult to accept. Nothing has worked today and it was tough.” Sarries travel to Cardiff on May 24 facing another French outfit in the form of Toulon. While their imperious unbeaten home record remained intact, Munster proved Wilkinson and co are not invulnerable. If Saracens play in a similar vein in the final, then they will be the last club to lift the Heineken Cup.
Dominic Evans, Pundit Arena