Preview: Racing-Metro v Saracens

Date published: April 3 2015

It’s first seed against eighth this weekend just outside Paris when pool top dogs Racing Métro host last year's finalists Saracens.

Jacky Lorenzetti has pumped more than a few Euro into Racing in a bid to turn them into a side that can both triumph domestically and on the European stage, except up until this season it hasn’t happened. Until now.

Racing’s best ever season in Europe to date has seen them advance to the knockout stages as the only unbeaten team to emerge from the pool stages, following five wins and a draw.

The last victory was far and away the most impressive – humbling Premiership leaders Northampton with what was unquestionably one of their best performances in recent memory. Not many teams go to the Gardens and win 32-8.

A big part of that success and their general progress this campaign has been key players finding their best form. Jamie Roberts at last looked settled back in January as he comfortably outshone Luther Burrell, while Juan Imhoff has always been deadly and crucially came away with two tries – he has five overall in the tournament. Add in the return of Jonathan Sexton at fly-half too and they go up a level.

Rather than purely trying to force their opponents into submission through the power of their pack, Racing started to express themselves with ball in hand and it has paid off handsomely.

No side has beaten more defenders in this year’s competition, leading the way on 157.

What stands against them in many ways is their record against English sides. Racing have lost six out of their ten games facing teams from over the channel, with four of the last five games at home to English teams also being defeats.

Another factor of course is the fact that Saracens have come to France and defeated them twice in the last five years, in 2013 and 2010.

Fresh from victory in front of over 84,000 at Wembley last weekend, Mark McCall’s are far from short of confidence.

Every single one of their tries against Harlequins were spectacular in their own right. Not so long ago Saracens were being criticised from all corners for their dull style of play, but that’s all changed over the last two seasons. Whether it was the madness of the semi-final hammering they gave to Clermont last year or the win at Wembley, they will no longer die wondering.

By winning three of their last four European quarter-finals and the last three games against Racing they hold a psychological advantage, but what if Racing’s pack is in the mood? After all, Northampton possess an impressive set of forwards and they were unraveled at home.

The only way Saracens can win is if they get stuck into the Racing set-piece, where Dimitri Szarzewski has made an imposing 35 out of 36 throws so far in Europe this season.

Imhoff, David Strettle, Chris Ashton and the rest might all be lethal attackers, but this one will be won and lost at the coalface with the feel of a Test match. As it should be in the knockout stages of Europe with everything on the line.

Bernard le Roux misses out for Racing with Camille Gerondeau starting at openside flanker while Henry Chavancy gets the nod at outside centre ahead of Alexandre Dumoulin.

With club captain Alistair Hargreaves ruled out of the game through injury for Saracens, England scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth will skipper the side in Paris. 

Petrus du Plessis and Jim Hamilton also return to the starting line-up, while Schalk Brits is on the bench,

Players to watch:

For Racing Métro: Such a key figure at the breakdown for club and country is Eddy Ben Arous, the mobile loosehead prop who missed France's final match of the Six Nations through injury. How he fares up against Petrus du Plessis at scrum-time could decide what will be a narrow contest.

For Saracens: Charlie Hodgson will get the nod at fly-half but the creativity of Alex Goode for Saracens is a big part of their attack. Goode made close to 400 metres in the pool stages with the ball in hand and often comes up into the line on attack to create overlaps out wide. His kicking game will also be vital.

Head-to-head: Two big ball carrying number eights. Antoine Claassen hasn't quite hit the heights with Racing that he soared at while playing with Castres, in the process becoming on the best ball carrying forwards in France. But he remains a threat with ball in hand and can get Racing over the gain line consistently.

Billy Vunipola meanwhile has shown a greater work-rate and engine this year after looking a little short of gas last November with England. After a strong and consistent Six Nations Championship, Saracens will need him to do what he does best when they head to France.

Prediction: This is a tough ask for Saracens on the road and the loss of their captain Hargreaves is a blow. We fancy Racing to edge this by 6 and make their first semi-final in a tight affair.

The teams:

Racing Métro: 15 Brice Dulin. 14 Juan Imhoff, 13 Henry Chavancy, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Jonny Sexton, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Antonie Claassen, 7 Camille Gerondeau, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Francois van der Merwe,  4 Luke Charteris, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (c), 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Virgile Lacombe, 17 Julien Brugnaut, 18 Brian Mujati, 19 Fabrice Metz, 20 Thibault Dubarry, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Johan Goosen, 23 Alexandre Dumoulin.

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Chris Wyles, 11 David Strettle, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth (c), 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 George Kruis, 3 Petrus Du Plessis, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.

Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 James Johnston, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Kelly Brown, 21 Matt Hankin, 22 Neil De Kock, 23 Nick Tompkins.

Date: Sunday, March 5
Venue: Stade Yves-du-Manoir
Kick-off: 13:45 local (12:45 BST, 11:45 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Ian Davies, Ben Whitehouse (both Wales)
TMO: Derek Bevan (Wales)