Preview: Clermont v Saracens

Date published: April 17 2015

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A repeat of last year's semi-final takes place at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Saturday when Clermont take on Saracens for a final spot at Twickenham.

Twelve months ago it was the English side that ran amok at HQ in that last-four showdown, with les Jaunards well beaten by a 46-6 scoreline. It was a superb win as Sarries set new semi-final records for the most points scored by a team, the largest winning margin and tries scored in a game. Clermont were stunned.

Since then it has been one win apiece for these now familiar foes, who were drawn together in 2014/15's pool stages. Now they will meet once again.

The big debate pre-game surrounds whether form will play a factor in Saturday's result, as let's face it, it's the English visitors who are the team purring at just the right time following recent triumphs over Racing-Metro and Leicester Tigers.

Newcastle, Wasps, Northampton, Exeter and Harlequins were the others to come unstuck in what is a seven-game streak, as Saracens are peaking at the right time at the business end, with only Sale having got the better of them since that 18-6 defeat at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin back in January.

Clermont meanwhile, despite an outstanding quarter-final performance against the Saints, enter on the back of a 10-11 home loss to Oyonnax. Granted, they opted to rest Benjamin Kayser, Julien Bonnaire, Brock James, Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga, Nick Abendanon and other stars but it was hardly an ideal warm-up. One small comfort for Clermont supporters however is that a week before they thumped Northampton in the quarters they lost at Stade Francais.

As expected, the reinforcements arrive this week and it's a boost to their hopes that France fly-half Camille Lopez returns on the bench. Vincent Debaty and Davit Zirakashvili meanwhile will pack down either side of Kayser in a strong front-row.

On the other side, there is a return to action for England international Owen Farrell who, like Lopez, is named on the replacements bench, with Charlie Hodgson continuing at number 10 alongside Richard Wigglesworth.

Saracens are forced into a change at flank, with captain Alastair Hargreaves sidelined through injury so Maro Itoje starts on the blindside while Mako Vunipola and Petrus Du Plessis are the starting props, with Jamie George named at hooker.

On the bench, Schalk Brits takes is named as a replacement and is joined by Wales loosehead Rhys Gill and Samoan international James Johnston as front row replacements. Back-row duo Kelly Brown and Jackson Wray are also named.

Ones to watch:

For Clermont: We go for the Englishman starring in France right now. Nick Abendanon is playing some of the best rugby of his career as his performance in the quarter-final success over Northampton was quite simply outstanding. Whether or not Stuart Lancaster comes calling before the World Cup remains unclear but with 716 metres gained and 28 tackles beaten – both topping the respective charts in this season's Champions Cup – surely he is not far off picking up the phone.

For Saracens: The volume is increasing regarding calls for Chris Ashton to be given another chance in an England jersey. His form has been impressive alongside the likes of Marcelo Bosch and Chris Wyles, who continues to keep David Strettle out of the side. Up front, the sigh of relief in Saracens quarter could almost be heard in St Etienne on Tuesday when Billy Vunipola was given the go-ahead to play in this semi-final. He's another to be enjoying some of his best form.

Head-to-head: It's going to be an intriguing midfield battle as Wesley Fofana and Jonathan Davies take on Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch. The latter's long-range kicking could play a part on Saturday while his centre partner Barritt's return has solidified the backline. Facing them are two class operators who can't be given an inch or they will make Sarries pay.

Prediction: Revenge for the French from twelve years ago. Clermont by 5!

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 Damien Chouly (c), 7 Julien Bardy, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Raphael Chaume, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Aurélien Rougerie.

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 George Kruis, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 James Johnston, 19 Kelly Brown, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 David Strettle.

Date: Saturday, April 18
Venue: Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, St-Etienne
Kick-off: 16.15 local (15:15 BST, 14:15 GMT)
Referee: George Clancy (Ire)
Assistant referees: Leighton Hodges (Wal), Dudley Phillips (Ire)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ire)

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