PREVIEW: Clermont Auvergne v Saracens

Fri, 12 May 2017 04:51
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CHAMPIONS CUP FINAL: Saracens will aim to rewrite European Rugby Union's record books when the title-holders face Clermont in the Champions Cup Final at Murrayfield on Saturday.

The London side are bidding to become just the fourth club to win back-to-back European Cup titles, after Leicester, Leinster and Toulon.

Victory would also see Saracens set a new outright record of 18 matches unbeaten in the Champions Cup, equalling the record they share with Irish side Leinster of 17, in both cases comprising 16 wins and a draw.

Saracens, also the reigning English champions and eyeing a 'double Double', could field six members of the British and Irish Lions squad - the largest number supplied by any one club - for the combined side's upcoming tour of New Zealand.

That England sextet of Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola are all set to feature against Clermont after Saracens rested most of their stars for last week's Premiership defeat to Wasps, having already booked their place in the title-deciding play-offs.

Saracens boss Mark McCall deployed just one of his Lions in the starting line-up against Wasps in Kruis, with Jamie George the only other to feature as he came off the bench.

England lock Itoje was the man-of-the-match in Saracens' Champions Cup Final win over Clermont's French rivals Racing 92 last season.

This will be Clermont's third European Cup Final, with the Top 14 side still looking for a first major continental title after twice losing to another French side in Toulon. 

"They've been close a few times but not quite done it," Itoje told Saracens' website. 

"They're a big, physical team with a strong set-piece and a deadly attack as well."

It will be up to Itoje and his fellow Saracens forwards to secure enough good quality ball so they can unleash backs of the calibre of England wing Chris Ashton, who needs just one more try to take sole possession of the tournament's record of 36 tries that he shares with former France star Vincent Clerc.

Saturday's match will be Ashton's last in European competition with Saracens before he joins Toulon at the end of the season, having remained off the scoresheet in their semifinal win away to Munster. 

Saracens will be without Scotland wing Sean Maitland (ankle)and prop Richard Barrington (hand) because of injury. They also have fitness doubts over tighthead prop Vincent Koch. 

Losing Koch would be a blow given that, in the absence of the already sidelined Juan Figallo, he will be expected to anchor the scrum against Clermont's powerhouse front row Thomas Domingo. 

But in any case, Clermont would do well to keep an eye on unheralded South African Michael Rhodes, a loose forward who has also starred at lock this season while Kruis was out injured.

Meanwhile, Clermont received a boost earlier this week when scrumhalf Morgan Parra and centre Remi Lamerat were passed fit by coach Franck Azema earlier this week.

Parra, 28, suffered a thigh strain and 27-year-old Lamerat a knee knock in the French club's bruising semifinal win over Irish side Leinster (27-22).

Clermont are battling against their reputation as the 'nearly men' of rugby, with their loyal 'Yellow Army' of fans desperate to celebrate in Edinburgh.

They've won just one of their 12 Top 14 finals (in 2010), as well as suffering those two European reverses against Toulon.

But David Strettle, Clermont's former Saracens wing, told AFP: "It doesn't affect me if Clermont have won or lost eleven, twelve finals.

"I am playing just the one game, in my head it is the same. The players just have to ignore the history.

"For the fans, it's different."

Prediction: Saracens could become the fourth club to win back-to-back European Cup titles, after Leicester Tigers, Leinster and RC Toulon. Holders Saracens have won one and lost one of their two previous finals, while Clermont have lost in their two final appearances; no club has played in three finals without winning at least one. This will be the third time that Murrayfield has hosted European club rugby's showpiece match. The two previous finals in the Scottish capital were each won by margins of fewer than seven points, with Toulouse beating Stade Francais Paris 18-12 after extra-time in 2005 while Leinster defeated Leicester 19-16 in 2009. This will be the seventh Anglo-French final and the third in the last four seasons; both of Saracens' finals have been against French opposition, but this will be the first time Clermont have faced a team from outside the Top 14 in the Final. Four of the last six European Cup finals have been decided by margins of more than seven points, just three of the 15 finals before that had been decided by such a margin. Saracens are unbeaten in their last 17 games in the Champions Cup (Won 16, Drew one), equalling Leinster's record which was set between 2010 and 2012 (also Won 16, Drew one). Saracens will claim their 100th victory in European competition if they retain the trophy. To date, they have won 56 games in the Champions Cup and 43 in the Challenge Cup. Saracens have yet to concede a first-half try this season. However, Clermont have scored more tries than any other side in the first 40 minutes of matches (16). Chris Ashton needs just one try to become the outright top try scorer in European Cup history. The Saracens wing is currently level with Vincent Clerc on 36 tries. The three top tacklers this season are all likely to feature in the final. No other player has made as many tackles as Sebastien Vahaamahina (90), Michael Rhodes (82) or Benjamin Kayser (80). Saracens are the favourites and rightly so. They have dominated the game in Europe and they will take this year's title by 10 points or more. 

Teams:

Clermont Auvergne: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 David Strettle, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Remi Lamerat, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Peceli Yato, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Raphael Chaume.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic , 22 Pato Fernandez, 23 Damian Penaud 

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Petrus du Plessis, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Duncan Taylor. 

Date: Saturday, May 13
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 17.00 (16.00 GMT; 18.00 France time)
Expected weather: Showers are expected on Saturday in Edinburgh with a high of 16 and a low of 10. There will also be gusts of up to 22 km/h
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)

Agence France-Presse & @ChampionsCup

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Leicester Tigers 6 2 0 4 8
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Pool 2
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Toulouse 6 3 2 1 18
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