Preview: Clermont v Northampton

Date published: April 3 2015

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For much of the group stages Northampton looked England's best bet in the Champions Cup as they set themselves up for a home quarter.

It all fell apart in round six though when Racing-Métro arrived at Franklin's Gardens and thumped Saints.

Instead of a home clash against Saracens, they instead travel to the intimidating Marcel Michelin to take on Clermont Auvergne.

While Castres, and this season Montpellier, have both won in Clermont, finally ending the 70-game unbeaten home record, it's still been seven years since they lost a European game at home.

Munster and Saracens both fell short in the pool stages and it will take a huge effort for Saints to get back into the last four for the first time since 2011.

That's not to say it can't be done. When Northampton have struggled in recent seasons, it's often been when their pack has been overpowered, as Racing did to them in January.

While Clermont's forwards are very good, they aren't quite as powerful as the likes of Racing or Toulon, and play a different game.

They will try to be more open, and while that often works, we also saw Saracens get away from them in last year's semi-final, while Stade Français opened them up in the Top 14 last weekend.

It's important not to read too much into domestic form, after all, Clermont are still well-placed to secure an automatic semi-final spot, but there are some question marks. Deprived of both Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez, they will call on Brock James and Ludovic Radosavljevic to run the show in the halfbacks, while Fritz Lee will have a huge role to play as their key ball-carrier.

Saints have one major injury absentee of their own, in George North, who was rightly ruled out this week after his series of concussions.

He's not the only player missing of course, Ben Foden is on the long-term injured list, and would have been very useful this weekend.

In the end it may well come down to whether Northampton can overpower Clermont up front. If they can, they are very hard to stop, but as Racing showed, if Saints can only get parity through their forwards, they are not nearly as dangerous.

Players to watch:

For Clermont: Clermont have a knack for picking up just the right players and in Nick Abendanon they have found yet another signing who fits seamlessly into their side. The Champions Cup's most incisive runner so far this season, having racked up an incredible 782 metres in the pool stages, Abendanon has provided yet another counter-attacking threat for les Jaunards. If Stephen Myler kicks loosely for Saints, Abendanon will make him pay. The other man in the spotlight will be Brock James, probably best remembered on the European stage for a quarter-final in Dublin where his poor goal-kicking cost Clermont a place in the last four. With Camille Lopez injured, James will be tasked with pulling the strings in another last eight clash, and while he doesn't have much to prove, he'll be eager to show he still has what it takes.

For Northampton: When Saints were hammered at home by Racing, no-one had a more miserable afternoon than Luther Burrell. The England centre struggled to cope with Jamie Roberts all afternoon, while he was also made to look foolish by the quick feet of Juan Imhoff on one occasion. For Clermont, Wesley Fofana will likely provide the quick feet, with Jonathan Davies offering the more muscular option. Burrell will need to stop them at source if he does want to endure another tough afternoon. Still, Saints generally win or lose on the strength of their pack, and Clermont have already targeted Samu Manoa as the man to stop. The talismanic American is a battering ram of a carrier, and if he can gain some momentum, it will allow Saints to get their dangerous backs involved. If he is shut down, Northampton can look a bit one-dimensional at times.

Head-to-head: Dylan Hartley has his critics, but it's fair to say he is vital to Northampton's chances. The hooker and skipper is the leader of the Saints pack, and despite his disciplinary issues, he offers a great deal around the park and in the set-piece. This weekend he faces an intriguing battle with Benjamin Kayser, one of the more underrated hookers in Europe.

Currently second-choice for France, Kayser provides everything you could want from a hooker with his powerful carrying, excellent set-piece work and reliable defence. He's not one to get involved in the niggly side of things, but given Hartley's regular meltdowns when he takes on Leicester, it's worth remembering that Kayser spent a couple of seasons with the Tigers, most notably helping them to a Heineken Cup final in 2009.

Prediction: Usually a game at the Marcel Michelin can just be chalked down as a home win, almost regardless of the opposition, but Clermont have been a little shakey recently. Saints, so dominant in the Premiership, haven't really fired in Europe this year, but they have a pack that could get on top. In the end we're going with Clermont to have just enough to sneak through to a fourth straight semi-final. Clermont by 4!

The teams:

Clermont: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Ludovic Radoslavjevic, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Damien Chouly (c), 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Vincent Debaty
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Thierry Lacrampe, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Aurélien Rougerie

Northampton: 15 James Wilson, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Sam Dickinson, 7 Calum Clark, 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Alex Corbisiero
Replacements: 16 Mikey Haywood, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Christian Day, 20 Jonathan Fisher, 21 Kahn Fotuali'i, 22 Tom Stephenson, 23 Ah See Tuala

Date: Saturday, 4 April
Venue: Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand
Kick-off: 18:45 local (17:45 GMT)
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Leighton Hodges (Wales), David Wilkinson (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland

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