Clermont gunning for revenge
A cracking opening weekend of action in the European Champions Cup sees a repeat of last year’s Heineken Cup semi-final, when Sarries hammered the French side 46-4 at Twickenham.
Indeed this section contains three of last season’s four semi-finalists, with Munster also set to contend for top spot in an ultra-competitive Pool 1.
The French big hitters are still smarting from that record-breaking last-four defeat, feeling especially aggrieved after the game swung inexorably in the home side’s favour in the first-half when Sarries were awarded a contentious penalty-try before a try of their own was disallowed soon after.
But there can be no doubt Saracens deserved that victory and will come into this one with great confidence having previously suffered at the hands of the Auvergne club, in 2011 (home and away) and 2012 (quarter-final).
Both sides have picked up where they left off last season on the domestic front, with Clermont leading the French Top 14 table after nine rounds of matches and Saracens tucked in behind Northampton in second spot in the Aviva Premiership.
Clermont’s impressive form in the Top 14 suggests they haven’t regressed since the departure of much vaunted head coach Vern Cotter in the summer, while they have strengthened again with Wales star Jonathan Davies joining Wesley Fofana in a potentially match-winning centre partnership.
However Saracens may look to target a possible weakness at half-back, where scrum-half Morgan Parra has been ruled out and his replacement Thierry Lacrampe is struggling to be fit.
With inexperienced out-half Camille Lopez likely to start at 10, expect Sarries’ ever-ready back-row Jacques Burger to target this area even more aggressively than usual.
Despite some personnel changes behind the scrum, Clermont still possess an arsenal to trouble any side. However they struggled to get their start-studded flyers into the game last year as the Sarries’ defence came out on top.
Sarries do not appear to have been aversely affected by the departure of second-row skipper Steve Borthwick, with South African lock Alistair Hargreaves assuming the captaincy and taking up the mantle of pack-leader with gusto.
With Chris Ashton aiming to continue his hot streak in Europe after his record number of tries in last season’s competition (11) and Owen Farrell set to return, Saracens look in prime condition heading into this one.
Having said that, revenge can be a powerful motivating tool – as Leinster found out in recent years against Clermont – so the French may just shade this. With that in mind Saracens/Clermont ht/ft looks good value at 13/2.
The match kicks off on Saturday, October 18th at 3.15pm at Allianz Park.