Preview: Champions Cup Final

Date published: May 13 2016

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We will have a first-time European winner on Saturday in Lyon when France's Racing 92 take on English champions Saracens.

When the Champions Cup was born this was what most envisaged, a French-Anglo contest with the cream rising to the top. In a World Cup season the bigger budgets were always going to come in handy, hence five Premiership sides and three Top 14 sides making up the quarter-finals, but the path to the final from there for Racing and Saracens hasn't been easy.

Racing recently have been forced to live in Toulon's shadow, watching their rivals spend similar sums of money as themselves on international stars to romp to three straight European crowns and a Top 14 title while Racing have come up with nothing.

That quarter-final win last month at the Stade Yves du Manoir however might be looked back on in a few years time as the moment the pendulum swung Racing's way.

Well, that moment and when the signing of Dan Carter was confirmed. After his first stint in the Top 14 with Perpignan never got off the ground due to injury there was a little trepidation over how a 33-year-old Carter would fare.

The reigning World Player of the Year has been a revelation, taking the club up a level with his composure on the ball and pristine decision-making. 

Maxime Machenaud handled the kicking duties in Racing's semi-final win over Leicester as Carter managed a niggling injury but should he take back the tee then he has real pedigree in Europe – landing 23 kicks out of 24 at 96 percent – the best success rate of any player to attempt at least eight shots at goal.

Racing's mission will be clear; gain dominance upfront and isolate Saracens' ball carriers at the breakdown before allowing the boots of Machenaud, Carter and Johan Goosen to both dictate territory and add points on the board. Having hooker Dimitri Szarzewski fit again too is a timely boost.

The Champions Cup final is almost here and we've written for Betsafe once more, discussing the betting odds and a general preview for the highly anticipated game.

If stopping those Saracens runners however was so simple then they wouldn't have marched to this stage of the competition or finished top of the Premiership.

Mark McCall's ambitious group went into January unbeaten in all competitions and the big difference to their game this season, adding to that ability to strangle sides out of games through a strong set-piece and miserly defence, has been their desire to offload.

As a result of that Duncan Taylor, the Scotland centre, has enjoyed his best season, while Chris Ashton either side of his ten-week suspension has showed as much hunger for the try line as ever. Saracens in fact have had so many outstanding performers this season – Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Billy Vunipola especially in the pack, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode leading the line in the backs.

Ashton spoke this week of his desire to at last win a European title after losses back in 2011 (with Northampton against Leinster) and then two years ago when Saracens fell to Toulon.

Toulon never allowed Saracens to get going that day in Cardiff and eight of the starting XV return in Lyon looking to make things right. So often that chip on the shoulder can provide the extra motivation to drag a side over the line. Saracens know the pain of falling short at this stage.

They stand on the brink of history given no side has ever won all their pool matches and gone on to win the title, while Saracens have also won their last four clashes with Racing.

But in those losses the French club didn't have Carter. Saturday's European showpiece is finely poised.

Players to Watch

For Racing 92: Tasked with cutting out Saracens' momentum upfront, Luke Charteris has a huge role to play. The Wales lock has often gone underappreciated in the past but this season the spotlight has shone on his work dismantling opposition mauls to go with his already well-recognised effectiveness at the lineout. Charteris' time with Racing is coming to an end ahead of his move to Bath and unlike many of his countrymen who in recent years have struggled to adapt to life in the Top 14, he has been a real success.

For Saracens: Hard to look past Owen Farrell. Statistically, Farrell (41/57) has succeeded with the most kicks at goal this season in Europe. No other player has reached 25, and he is also the top point scorer (106). Always fired up, Farrell's defence will be under scrutiny following his yellow card in the semi-final but it's the subtle touches under pressure with his distribution and kicking game that have really caught the eye this season playing for club and country.

Head to head: Two monster number eights at the opposite ends of their careers. Chris Masoe can't have possibly expected to have a shot at a fourth straight European medal, after playing his part in Toulon's three campaigns, but here the former All Black finds himself looking to make some remarkable history. Now 36, Masoe like Carter has just given Racing that extra bit of title-winning experience, whilst still providing plenty of threat with the ball in hand.

Expect plenty of collisions between Masoe and Billy Vunipola, who in the big games this season for Saracens and England has produced his best rugby. Such a key figure for Saracens when it comes to their attack and he has broken tackles for fun all season long either in open play or off the back of the Saracens scrum. Expect at least a couple of line breaks in Lyon as Saracens turn to one of the biggest stars to deliver.

Form: This will be the sixth meeting between the clubs in the competition; Racing won the first encounter in 2010/11 but Saracens have won all four since. Four of the previous five matches between the sides have been won by margins of fewer than 10 points. This will be Racing 92's first appearance in a European final. This will be the sixth Anglo-French decider. Premiership clubs have won three with the Top 14 winning two. 14 of the previous 20 finals have been decided by margins of seven points or fewer, while just three finals have seen over 50 points scored in total. Saracens have failed to score a try in five of their six knockout games against French opposition in the Champions Cup (W2, L3). Saturday's contest will be between the competition's best attack and best defence; Saracens (34.1) have averaged the most points per game this season while Racing have conceded the fewest (12.8). 

Prediction: A contest that seems destined to be settled by the boot rather than a moment of wizardry such as Drew Mitchell's try last year. It should go down to the wire, but Saracens, even in France, are narrow favourites. Saracens by three.

The teams:

Racing 92: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Johannes Goosen, 12 Alexandre Dumoulin, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Francois van der Merwe, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (c), 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Virgile Lacombe, 17 Khatchik Vartanov, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Manuel Carizza, 20 Antonie Claassen, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Henry Chavancy

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Petrus Du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 
16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Marcelo Bosch

Date: Saturday, May 14
Venue: Grand Stade de Lyon
Kick-off: 17:45 local (16:45 BST, 15:45 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

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