On Saturday, two of Europe’s best will fight it out to be crowned champions of Europe. Saracens, the continent’s form team over the last two seasons will face perennial underachievers Clermont.
On current form, one has to say that this will not be Clermont’s year yet again. Both teams have had tough routes to the final – Saracens faced a resurgent Glasgow Warriors side in the quarter-finals and then faced an incredibly passionate Munster team at the Aviva Stadium in the semi-finals. Saracens were dominant in both games, blowing both teams away. Unrelenting, Saracens did not just ‘get on with the job’ – the players will claim that this is the case – but there is a certain style about Saracens right now.
They are exuding confidence, playing with a real zest in their game. Helped by their big ball carriers in the Vunipola brothers, the outstanding second row partnership of Maro Itoje and George Kruis and the pin-point goal kicking from the boot of Owen Farrell – it is hard to find many flaws in their game.
Yet, Clermont may prove to be Saracens’ greatest test this season. They beat a galvanised Leinster team (who have finished second in the Pro12) in the semi-finals and dispatched a disappointing Toulon side in the quarter-finals. In players such as Morgan Parra, Nick Abendanon, Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana to name a few, Clermont are capable of playing brilliant attacking rugby.
They have also warmed up for the final by completing a 30-26 home win over Top 14 leaders La Rochelle, where they are now competing in the Top 14 playoffs. It has been reported that both Morgan Parra and Rémi Lamerat are fit to face Saracens on Saturday, a major boost to the French side as both have been outstanding this season.
Despite Saracens being the favourites for the final, there is pressure for Clermont to win. The Top 14 final win in 2010 is the last time they won a trophy and have appeared in two previous European Champions Cup/Heineken Cup finals, in 2013 and 2015, losing to Toulon on both occasions.
There is an expectant feeling amongst Clermont fans that with the quality of the squad at Clermont’s disposal (featuring a host of internationals), they should be winning trophies – no club in European history has played in three finals without winning at least one of them.
Saracens on the other hand are under a different sort of pressure. A pressure where this team can catapult themselves into the pantheon of the great club sides in European history. They can become the fourth club to win back-to- back European Cup titles after Leicester Tigers, Leinster and Toulon.
They are also on course to become the first English side to win the domestic and European double in consecutive seasons since Leicester Tigers did it in 2001 and 2002. That would be some feat indeed.
A record is also at stake for the longest unbeaten streak in the European Cup, where they are currently tied at 17 with Leinster who avoided defeat between 2010 and 2012.
Saracens have a host of British and Irish Lions in their team, contributing 6 players to the Lions squad touring New Zealand this summer which is more than any other team in Europe. That says a lot about the strength of this team, famous for their unique bonding trips which the Saracens players wholly believe is central to their success.
What is worrying though for Clermont and the rest of Europe is that the core of this Saracens team look set to stay together for quite some time yet.
Louis de Montfort, Pundit Arena.
We caught up with Saracens and Lions star Jamie George to discuss the upcoming Champions Cup Final on Pundit Arena Rugby.