Preview: Saracens v Clermont

Date published: April 6 2012

Saracens will carry the weight of English hopes in Sunday's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Clermont at Vicarage Road.

Saracens will carry the weight of English hopes in Sunday's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Clermont at Vicarage Road.

The last English team left in the competition face a tough test against the 2010 champions of France, who have made the European crown their principle target in their centenary season.

Sunday's hosts have a massive carrot dangling in front of them as victory will secure a semi-final (against either Leinster or Cardiff Blues) at Twickenham, meaning they will have two games in a row at the home of English rugby if they can go all the way to the final. The 2012 final will be the fourth at Twickenham and on each previous occasion an English club has carried off the title.

But first things first and victory against les Jaunards, who lie second in the Top 14 standings, is far from guaranteed. While Sarries have been in strong form of late with victory over Northampton followed by and a demolition of Sale, but they came unstuck against league leaders Harlequins last week.

Clermont have put together a very impressive season, including a 12-game unbeaten run in all competitions, but their form has wavered in recent weeks: A below-strength side struggled to get the better of Agen, relegation-threatened Perpignan pushed them all the way at home and their winning streak cam to an end with an uninspired, error-strewn performance last weekend in Biarritz.

The visitors will be able to count on some support though as Clermont have sent over 2000 of their fanatical supporters to Watford

Saracens fell at the semi-final stage in 2008 in their only other appearance in the knock-out stages and Clermont are attempting to qualify for the semi-finals at the fourth time of asking.

Saracens welcome back prop Rhys Gill and centre Brad Barritt to their starting line-up.

In other team news, scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth makes his first start since October after returning from injury at Wembley Stadium last weekend.

“Competing with the elite of Europe in the knockout stages of tournaments is where we want to be…both now and in the future,” explained Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall.

“If you look at the likes of Toulouse, Leicester Tigers, Leinster and Munster, these are teams who have created a legacy in Europe…we want to do the same.

“But we know the size of the challenge in front of us. Looking through the Clermont squad, you will see a number of very familiar names from both the club and world stage. It's a massive game and the kind of contest that we relish!”

Good news for Clermont is the sight of Morgan Parra in the starting XV. The French international has recovered from a thigh muscle tear to partner David Skrela in the half-back combination.

Former All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu also returns to the side to start on the wing.

Players to watch:

For Saracens: While the likes of Owen Farrell and Mouritz Botha were outstanding for England during the Six Nations, Schalk Brits has been the star of the show for Sarries over the last few years. One of the best hookers in the business, the home side will look to Brits to keep the Clermont defence busy with his trademark charges and fancy footwork.

For Clermont: After scoring four tries in his first four Test matches, Wesley Fofana is set to be a star. Clermont will look to play an expansive game with Fofana one of their most dangerous runners. Former Leicester hooker Benjamin Kayser is no stranger to Vicarage Road having spent two season in the Premiership. Some questions have been raised over the solidity of the Clermont scrum and much of the responsibility for silencing the critics will fall on Kayser.

Head-to-head: Look out for a titanic battle between opposing number eight Ernst Joubert and Elvis Vermeulen. Also keep an eye on midfield where two big units, Aurélien Rougerie and Brad Barritt, will renew their rivalry from the Six Nations

Prediction: It'll be close but we'll go with the home side to grind out a narrow win. Saracens by less than five points

Rugby Union betting odds

The teams:

Saracens 15 Alex Goode, 14 David Strettle, 13 Owen Farrell, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Justin Melck, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Rhys Gill.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Carlos Nieto, 19 George Kruis, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Adam Powell, 23 James Short.

Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana , 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 David Skrela, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Elvis Vermeulen, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Lionel Faure.
Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Daniel Kotze, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Ludovic Radoslavjevic , 22 Brock James, 23 Jean-Marcel Buttin,

Date: Sunday, April 8
Venue: Vicarage Road, Watford
Kick-off: 16.30 BST (15.00 GMT)
Referee: Alain Rolland