I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all had a giggle at Sarries’ expense in the past. The slightly cringe-worthy references to the wolfpack, the well-publicised team-bonding trips to beer festivals and the ear-bleedingly bad songs. In fact, just the jingles alone are enough to draw snide remarks and mirth from detractors, but the shocking reality is that Saracens are deadly serious. I personally think all of the above is harmless and great for the game, standing the Londoners out as something different, but the real purpose is to grab the attention of new fans and pull them towards the Premiership leaders instead of the more traditional set ups that can be found elsewhere. And, of course, if they’re serious off the pitch, they’re deadly serious on it.
Few jokes are made by opposition fans in the build up to an encounter with Sarries. Why? Because they are simply the most dominant side in the domestic league at the moment, having spent the season annihilating all-comers. Their pack contains a devastating mix of raw power, in the form of the Vunipola brothers and James Johnston, and graft, with Kelly Brown and Jacques Burger two of the hardest working flankers around. And in Schalk Brits, they have just a sprinkling of magic too, with the South African hooker hitting his best form for years over the last couple of months. It’s a pack built for dismantling their opposite numbers – sending them backwards at a rate of knots to give two of Europe’s best finishers, Dave Strettle and Chris Ashton, the space they need to ruthlessly exploit any weakness. It’s a game-plan based on physical dominance (as well as the cultured boot of Owen Farrell) and it has been bone-crushingly effective so far this season.
In fact, the only time it hasn’t worked – and Sarries have struggled – is against teams who can match, or even best, them physically. Toulouse have managed it twice this season and, what would have been worrying for Saracens fans, was that there wasn’t an obvious Plan B is the power game failed. And they’ll need all the tricks they can shove up their sleeve with Clermont Auvergne rolling into Twickenham, because if there’s one thing the French giants’ pack like, it’s a big arm-wrestle. Hard-nosed veterans in the shape of Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines and Julien Bonnaire are some of the toughest men in world rugby, capable of ruling the breakdown through sheer brutality. It’s a lethal combination when you had in the other key ingredient - a sparkling backline, where Wesley Fofana, Napolini Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu lie in wait to produce moments of genius to unlock the stingiest of defences. The loss of captain Aurelien Rougerie, the glue of the midfield, will hurt them, but Fofana is now a seasoned campaigner despite being only 26 – it is time for him to step up.
In many ways, the two sides have a similar basic gameplan – winning the collisions with power and aggression around the fringes, before unleashing the ruthless backline into space – so where will the key differences be? Well, it is fair to say that Clermont have the more natural playmakers and runners in their backline and that means, despite what the gameplan says, they can strike from anywhere. The visitors, who don’t enjoy a great away record in a similar way to many French sides, will be relying on their big names out wide to produce the goods when needed and, likewise, Sarries will be looking to Brad Barritt to lock up the defence and lead the wolf-pack on its most difficult hunt yet. Owen Farrell is also key to the Londoners’ hopes – not just because of his ability off the kicking tee, but because he faces off against one of the most cultured players around, in Brock James. James is a fantastic playmaker but he has been known to get a bit shakey under pressure on occasion – Farrell will be under a similar amount of scrutiny, but he will need to keep his nerve and his authority throughout.
And so Clermont, unofficially the best team in Europe over the last 3 years despite not picking up the silverware to prove it, head to Twickenham in search of a 2nd straight final and that elusive trophy. They have the power game to match Saracens’, and the key question will be if the Londoners’ big men, the Vunipolas, can carry hard enough to take their physical game to the next level. This is serious business time now – the time for giggles if over.
Saracens Team News
Alex Goode starts at full-back and is joined by David Strettle and Chris Ashton in the back three as head coach Mark McCall makes three personnel changes to the starting XV that beat 14-man Ulster last time out. In the midfield, Marcelo Bosch partners Brad Barritt at centre, whilst in the halves Owen Farrell is joined by experienced scrum-half Neil de Kock. Up front, Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and James Johnston make up the front row, with Steve Borthwick captaining the side at second row - he is joined by Mouritz Botha at lock. Kelly Brown starts at blindside flanker, with Premiership Player of the Season nominee Jacques Burger at openside flanker. England international Billy Vunipola starts at No.8 to complete the back row.
Starting Line up: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola , 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 James Johnston, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wiggleworth, 22 Tim Streather, 23 Chris Wyles
Kelly Brown. The Scottish captain was messed about by Scott Johnson during the Six Nations as the Australian coach implemented the ill-advised tactic of dropping his best players, but the flanker never ceases to impress me in a Saracens shirt. He may have two pet slugs living above his eyes but Brown is the kind of grafter that every player wants in their team – first to the breakdown, making his tackles and offering a ball-carrying option as well. But his focus on Saturday is going to have to be entirely singular – to make a real mess of the Clermont ball however he can. The French side showed against Leicester that they can be lethal when they get defences marching backwards and Morgan Parra is given quick ball on a plate, but equally Leicester demonstrated that last year's runners up can be frustrated if the breakdown is fiercely contested.
Clermont Auvergne Team News
Clermont will be without captain Aurelien Rougerie due to a thigh injury. Benson Stanley takes his place in one of three changes to the backline that faced Leicester in the quarter-finals. Lee Byrne starts at full-back in the place of Jean-Marcellin Buttin while New Zealand wing Sitiveni Sivivatu returns, taking over from Noa Nakaitaci, who is on the bench. Back row forwards Damien Chouly and New Zealander Fritz Lee have recovered from knocks to line up in an unchanged pack.
Clermont Auvergne: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra; 1 Thomas Domingo, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 5 Nathan Hines, 6 Julien Bonnaire (c), 7 Damien Chouly, 8 Fritz Lee.Subs: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Clement Ric, 19 Julien Piere, 20 Gerhard Vosloo, 21 Thierry Lacrampe, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Noa Nakaitaci.
Morgan Parra. The French 9 may have found himself out of the international side but there is still no doubting that he is a big game player. In a manner that is typical for scrum halves this side of the channel, he is much more of a playmaker than a running half back, which means he can focus on making the correct decisions and getting his service spot on. Under the most pressure, though, will be his goal-kicking – in a high pressure game at Twickenham where points are sure to be at a premium, Parra's nerve will need to hold as it did in the quarter finals. A couple of misses, and those famous French self-doubts may start to creep in.
Chris Ashton v Sitiveni Sivivatu. Chris Ashton made the point this week that he is desperate to get back into the England fold – and, in all honesty, he could be justified in being relatively optimistic. He has scored 9 tries already in this Heineken Cup – including one absolute pearler against Ulster – and just one more will hand him a record for the European campaign. But if he wants to prove that he really is back in business, then he'll have to do it against the most explosive wing combination in Europe. Ex-All Black Sivivatu may be lining up on the opposite side of the field but the big man loves roaming and switching wings with his partner, Napolini Nalaga, and he will smell an opportunity to make some big yards against Ashton's notoriously dodgy defence. This is shaping up to be a big battle between two great finishers, but one of them has a point to prove – and he has to prove it by handling one of the most physical wingers in rugby.
A typical French side would be written off as soon as they left their home town, let alone travel across to an English ground. But Clermont are not a typical French side. Their side is packed with both local and international talent, and they possess an ethos that makes them one of the few teams capable of travelling and winning anywhere. Sarries have been magnificent in the Premiership this season and at times have looked unplayable, but they looked worryingly vulnerable against Toulouse and seem to run out of ideas when they are matched physically – which is a rarity, admittedly. Clermont are one of the sides who can match Sarries in terms of grunt and muscle, and I think that should be enough to give the visitors a narrow win and another shot at the European title. Clermont by 5.
Let’s see what’s happening in the other Heineken Cup semi-final...
Toulon v Munster: You can read my full preview on The Rugby Blog but, in short, Munster have enough character to have a great shot at turning over the Galacticos in their own backyard. The question is, do they have enough quality? I’m not entirely convinced, but you can bet they’ll scrap for everything. Toulon by 3.