'They are a very good side'. Those were the words that Saracens' Director of Rugby Mark McCall used to described ASM Clermont Auvergne when asked about them in the immediate aftermath of his squad's victory over the Leicester Tigers in the domestic competition last weekend. Now, for those of you that are thinking well that is a slight understatement, do allow me to contextualise them slightly; Mark McCall is a calm man, he does not deal in elaborate statements instead he takes everything in his stride. The fact that Clermont bulldozed past the Northampton Saints and played some of the best rugby that we have seen in Europe this year will not have passed him by however we all know that sport is about facing your challenges head on and never, ever showing your opposition any hint of trepidation.
This week I took the time to re-visit the Quarter Final that will forever more be known as 'that Quarter Final' in the way in which Saracens' victory over Clermont last year is known as 'that Semi Final'. Let me assure you, or confirm your own thinking, that on second viewing Clermont's performance was just as, if not more, impressive than the first time around. Clermont's attacking proficiency and collective physicality was astounding, they rode the Saints' tackles like they were nothing more than a tiny inconvenience and strangled Saints in all areas of the game. To use one of the most aspired to and well know sporting phrases, Clermont were totally and utterly 'in the zone' and the greatest unknown is whether or not they will be able to take themselves back to that place, or a place close to that, again this weekend?
A brief glance at a map book, or the modern day equivalent, Google Maps, will tell you that Saint Etienne is just eighty seven miles from the Stade Marcel Michelin. Most certainly the 'intimidation factor' of Clermont's formidable fortress will be diminished slightly by this shift in venue, however given that the drive from to Saint Etienne takes a little over an hour it won't be wholly diminished due to the 'neutral' venue. Saracens' travelling support will be out numbered and you expect out voiced by Clermont's fanatical fans. Will this worry Mark McCall's men, I doubt it, for Saracens are not a side that are fazed by travelling away from home or their surroundings, in all honesty should thrive on the drive and ambition of silencing the crowd early. Clermont's the intoxicating combination of power and pace should be back and their sole focus will be to do quite the opposite and instead whip the French support into a frenzy of emotion and animation. Nick Abendanon will cause chaos, positive chaos and Jonathan Davies this week articulated the clear direction that his side will take, that is to 'negate the errors in our game, play in the right areas, build a lead and force Saracens to play a bit.'
It is unfair to say that Saracens do like to play rugby, they may not play with such fluidity in attack as the masters of going forwards Bath, however they do know how to put together constructive rugby. Our Aviva Premiership side continue to build, week on week, they are benefiting from their fruits of their very hard labour however this weekend they must take it to the next level, a level higher than we have seen to date. Mark McCall has experience and dynamite across the park, Billy Vunipola's inclusion is right and it is hoped that the distraction that was his 'citing' earlier in the week hasn't de-railed his preparations. Understanding Billy as a character, I doubt that it will have done and his personal performance will be at the heart of Saracens' prowess and indeed confidence. The impenetrable defensive display that was highlighted in the second forty minutes against the Leicester Tigers last weekend must be replicated and built upon for in Nalanga, Nakaitaci, Fofana and Abendanon they will have players of a much more unpredictable and dynamic nature heading their way. Cool heads are a must; cards cannot form part of the equation for any period with fourteen men at this stage in the competition may as well signal game over at that moment in time.
By far this will undoubtedly be Saracens' greatest test of the season, greater than any Aviva Premiership game to date and greater than any of their European tests, greater than their opener against Clermont in Round 1 and greater two weeks ago in Paris. Why I hear you ask? Well, it comes down to the fact that this weekend one of these two sides will go home and one of these two sides will have to wait another twelve more months to be in a position of claiming the title that they both long for so very dearly. The burning desire for this title drives both sides, Saracens' hurt following last year's Final runs deeper than they will openly admit to any of us and Clermont's latent and pent up frustration at their lack of silverware over the past decade fuels their every move. On Saturday afternoon the immovable object will meet the impenetrable force and over the course of eighty minutes one must give away to the other, the question is which?