Planet Rugby

Preview: Saracens v Clermont

25th April 2014 12:09

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Saracens Clermont Heineken Cup semi final preview

Game changers: Farrell and Fofana

Clermont travel to Twickenham on Saturday for their third consecutive Heineken Cup semi-final. England's top club awaits.

The fact that Clermont must head to London is massively significant. Les Jaunards' unbelievable record on home soil is well documented so Sarries would have been dancing for joy when the semi-final venue draw was announced.

You can bet the Clermont bosses would have been wearing a wry smile when Nigel Wray complained about having to play at Twickenham, where they lost to Toulon in last year's semi-finals.

For the record, Clermont qualified as the second seeds for the knock-out games having topped their pool while Sarries sneaked into the last eight having lost to Toulouse both at Wembley and in France. If anyone should be grumpy about the venue, it's Saturday's visitors.

Of course there is no point in Clermont crying over spilled milk, but one can't help feeling the draw is an ominous sign for a club that has an unfortunate habit stumbling with the finish line in sight. Remember the last-minute drama against Leinster in 2012? How about the one-point loss in the nail-biter against Toulon last year (their only loss in the tournament)...not to mention it took them eleven finals to finally win the Top 14.

A peak at the 'form' section below will underline just how vulnerable Clermont appear to be away from home. In the Top 14 they travel about as well as un-refrigerated fish. The fact that their only success on the road since November came just down the road from Saturday's venue when they beat Harlequins at the Stoop is both an indictment of French attitudes to domestic away fixtures and a sign of how seriously Clermont take success in Europe.

It's worth mentioning that these clubs have met three times in the Heineken Cup before, with Clermont triumphing on each occasion, scoring a total of eight tries to two. In each of the three games, Clermont have prevailed by at least 10 points.

But considering Saracens' dominant form in the Premiership, you would expect them to match Clermont all the way.

It's hard to find weaknesses in either side. Sarries will be well-aware of Brock James's record of shaky nerves on big occasions. Clermont will also have noted how Toulouse where able to go toe-to-toe with the Saracens pack at Wembley and come out on top.

Clermont have the strongest scrum in the tournament so far. Last season's defeated finalists have also averaged more possession per game than any other club and have made the most offloads (17 per game).

Saracens won't flinch at those stats since they have averaged more points (33.4), tries (4.6) and clean breaks (9.1) per game than any other club this season.

In team news, Clermont will be without captain Aurelien Rougerie due to a thigh injury. Benson Stanley takes his place in one of three changes to the backline that faced Leicester in the quarter-finals.

Lee Byrne starts at full-back in the place of Jean-Marcellin Buttin while Sivivatu returns on the wing, taking over from Noa Nakaitaci, who is on the bench.

Back row forwards Damien Chouly and New Zealander Fritz Lee have recovered from knocks to line up in an unchanged pack.

Saracens have made three personnel changes to the starting XV that beat Ulster.

Marcelo Bosch starts at outside centre in the place of Duncan Taylor. Neil de Kock is named at scrum-half ahead of Richard Wigglesworth, who drops to the bench.

Kelly Brown starts on the flank as Billy Vunipola moves to number eight, replacing Ernst Joubert.

Form: Winning at home has become a habit (76 games unbeaten) but on the road Clermont are seldom successful. Their only win away from home in 2014 came at the Stoop when they beat Harlequins 16-13 back in January. In the Top 14, they haven't won on the road since November. Last weekend they lost 22-6 to Racing Metro in Paris. Saracens are unbeaten in domestic competition since October but French teams have ended their European adventures in the past two seasons - Clermont were 22-3 victors at Vicarage Road in the quarter-finals in 2012 and Toulon won 24-12 in last year's semi-final - and they were beaten twice in the Pool stages by Toulouse.

Players to watch:

For Saracens: Scotland flank Kelly Brown has made 62 tackles in this season's campaign and is yet to miss one. No other player has made more than 35 and maintained a 100 percent success rate. His work in the trenches against a world-class Clermont back row will be be vital.

For Clermont: Another Scot, second row Nathan Hines will be playing his fifth Heineken Cup semi-final in as many years. A tireless grafter, his experience will come in very handy in a battle with a certain Steve Borthwick.

Head-to-head: Try scoring opportunities are set to be few and far between, so it'll be key to cash in when it's 'on'. Sitiveni Sivivatu and Chris Ashton are joint top of the clean breaks (14) chart this season, with Sivivatu also joint top of the offloads stats (18). Ashton is the top try scorer in the tournament this season with nine while Clermont's Naipolioni Nalaga, is second on the list with five. The tournament individual record of 10 tries in a season was set by Sebastien Carrat of Brive in 1996/97.

Previous results:
2012: Clermont won 22-3 at Vicarage Road
2011: Clermont won 24-14 at Vicarage Road
2010: Clermont won 25-10 at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin

Prediction: On paper, Clermont are probably the stronger team, but it's hard to ignore their poor record on the road. That said, Saracens have lost their two previous semi-finals in this tournament, in 2008 and 2013. On both occasions, they had home country advantage and the atmosphere at Twickenham is unlikely to be anywhere near what Clermont have become used to on their travels in France. It'll be close, but Clermont's greater experience at this level could be telling. Clermont by three.

The teams:

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola , 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 James Johnston, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wiggleworth, 22 Tim Streather, 23 Chris Wyles

Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Julien Bonnaire (c), 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo
Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Piere, 20 Gerhard Vosloo, 21 Thierry Lacrampe, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Noa Nakaitaci.

Date: Saturday, April 26
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 15:40 BST (14.40 GMT)
Weather: 14°C. Chance of rain
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland); Leighton Hodges (Wales)

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