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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 23 June, 2018

Five things to watch out for when Saracens host Clermont

With no Irish team involved in this weekend’s first Heineken Cup semi-final, you can just sit back and enjoy it.

Brock James and Morgan Parra wince at a missed kick.
Brock James and Morgan Parra wince at a missed kick.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

FOR SOME OF you (most likely non-Munster fans) this is the game of the weekend.

Clermont and Saracens is a mouthwatering prospect; , the side who have been among the best teams in Europe over the past five and the English Premiership leaders, a side everybody just loves to hate.

There were few surprises when Mark McCall and Vern Cotter named their teams this afternoon, but that doesn’t mean that there will be any less intrigue at Twickenham tomorrow.

1. Clash of styles

You don’t have to look beyond the half-backs to see the difference in the attacking ethos of these long-suffering Heineken Cup chasers.

Owen Farrell and Neil DeKock perfectly sum up Sarries rigid structures. Though Farrell has made a concerted effort to threaten the line more this season, his chief duty will be game management, and passing the ball to the closest big man in a black and red shirt to punch holes in the French defence.

By comparison, Clermont’s pivotal pair seem like an interpretative dance duo with Morgan Parra holding the majority of responsibility while Brock James is allowed to inflict his brilliant passing on the game to take Clermont out of the trenches and into open field.

2. Twickenham factor

Yesterday, Saracens were offering tickets on a buy-one-get-one-free basis as they attempted to put bums on a few more of the 82,000 seats in English rugby’s HQ.

The Premiership club have had few problems adapting to the venue – they defeated Ulster there last season before falling to Toulon – but if tomorrow’s attendance is sparse then the advantage of being at home could be easily negated by an early French score.

3. Solid set-pieces

We’ve written many times about the well-oiled machine that is Saracen line-out and with Schalk Brits and Steve Borthwick both back in harness there is no change on that front.

Clermont may just have the tools to threaten that sideline dominance, however. In Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines and Julien Bonnaire the Bleu et Jaune have an array of excellent line-out defenders if they choose to contest.

Schalk Brits 1/6/2010 Schalk Brits lobs in some line-out ball. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

4. Flyers

Both Heineken Cup semi-finals boast a brilliant quartet of lightning-quick wingers. But Simon Zebo and Keith Earls might just forgive us if we briefly forget about them tomorrow afternoon to watch Naipolioni Nalaga, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Chris Ashton and (last and least) David Strettle attempt to tear it up.

With nine tries in seven games so far, Ashton is just one try away from equalling the season record in the Heineken Cup. Saracens know the weapon they have at their disposal and they use Ashton their go-to strike-runner on set-plays when the try-line is in sight.

Clermont use their flyers slightly differently, the elusive Nalaga and Sivivatu tasked with finding gaps all over the park to stretch defences.

5. Cotter’s last stand

This is Vern Cotter’s last chance to win a European title with Clermont. For eight seasons, the New Zealander has made the side from the Massif Central one of the finest teams ever to grace the Heineken Cup. And yet, there are no medals to prove it.

Last year’s heart-breaking defeat to Toulon was the closest they have come, but too often Cotter’s sides have taken on some of New Zealand’s more unwanted characteristics.

Along with the devastating ruck work and commendable attacking ethos, Clermont have developed the nasty habit of falling just short after being widely heralded as the best team on the continent.

With all due respect to Scotland, they offer a greatly diminished opportunity to win silverware. Can the Kiwi set that record straight before he says Au Revoir?

Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Owen Farrell, Neil de Kock; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, James Johnston, Steve Borthwick (c), Mouritz Botha, Kelly Brown, Jacques Burger, Billy Vunipola.Replacements: Jamie George, Richard Barrington, Matt Stevens, Alistair Hargreaves, Jackson Wray, Richard Wigglesworth,  Tim Streather, Chris Wyles.
Clermont Auvergne: Lee Byrne; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Benson Stanley, Wesley Fofana, Naipolioni Nalaga;  Brock James, Morgan Parra; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire (c), Damien Chouly, Fritz Lee.Replacements: Ti’i Paulo, Vincent Debaty, Clément Ric, Julien Pierre, Gerhard Vosloo, Thierry Lacrampe, Mike Delany,  Noa Nakaitaci.

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Sean Farrell

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