Heineken Cup Semi-Final Preview: Saracens vs ASM Clermont Auvergne
Tomorrow afternoon sees the first of the eagerly anticipated Heineken Cup semi-finals take place at Twickenham between two of the biggest sides in European rugby to have never won this competition. Saracens come into the game off the back of a hard fought win at Ravenhill, where they were fortunate to come up against a 14-man Ulster for the vast majority of the encounter. This time they have home advantage. Clermont progressed after a similarly tight affair against the Leicester Tigers at the Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. They have a lot of firepower to bring across the Channel and have Sarries fans justifiably worried. Here is a look at the key personal/positional battles that will have a big say in who reaches the final in Cardiff:
Schalke Brits vs Benjamin Kayser:
Sarries’ South African Hooker had an immense game against Ulster in the quarters. Not your conventional front row forward, Brits has serious handling ability and an explosive turn of pace making him one of the most mobile No.2’s in world rugby. He often has a big say in proceedings and has a moment of magic in him which could turn the game in favour of the English side. Opposite number Benjamin Kayser is a reasonably experienced French International, who had a spell with Leicester from 2007-2009. Kayser is a less dynamic and influential team member than Brits, but on this big European stage his main job will be to throw straight and keep the South African under wraps. If he can do that, it could mean significantly stunting Saracens forward momentum in the loose.
Steve Borthwick vs Julien Bonnaire – The two Captains:
Who will lead their side the best? Who will make the right decisions when it matters? This is a massive occasion for both sides and it may come down to which captain can keep a lid on things and lead his side well in such a pressure cooker situation. Borthwick, a former England captain has certainly been there and done that on the international scene and this could be an advantage for the English side. If Borthwick can stay composed and operate well in the lineout, things could go well for the home team. However, with 75 French caps to his name, Bonnaire is also unlikely to be overawed by the occasion. In my opinion a considerably better player than Borthwick, the Clermont number 6 loves a big hit and will lead from the front for Les Jaunards. An interesting contest.
Owen Farrell vs Brock James:
Farrell is justifiably renowned as being a cool, calm and collected fly half who is as adept in defence as he is going forward. An excellent pass coupled with a usually deadly boot from the kicking tee, Farrell has made the England No.10 jersey his own over the last few years. However, Farrell seemed to be unnerved by the partisan crowd in Belfast throughout the Quarter Final against Ulster where he missed 4 of his 5 kicks at goal. His points are invaluable for Sarries and a similarly shaky effort from the tee this time around will leave them with no chance against full complement of Clermont players. ASM’s Brock James is almost the antithesis of Farrell. The South African fits the more stereotypically ‘Fancy Dan’ number 10 mould much more snugly than his opposite number. The mercurial fly half has been with Clermont for years and has exhibited a bit of an unfortunate tendency to struggle in some high profile games. Capable of having a total nightmare or an untouchable and defence-splitting game, a performance at either end of James’ spectrum could be decisive in this Semi-Final.
Brad Barritt vs Wesley Fofana:
Barritt has gradually slipped out of the English International set up recently, to be replaced by a more creative model in Billy Twelvtrees. The Sarries Number 12 is often slightly cumbersome in attack, but is undoubtedly excellent in defence. He will need to be on top form tomorrow, up against one of the best centres in the world. Wesley Fofana had a reasonably quiet six nations for France, but has undoubted star quality. A real athlete at inside centre, Fofana is solid in defence, excellent on the ground and has buckets of flair in attack. The heartbeat of an excellent Clermont backline, a typically good game from the remarkably consistent Frenchman could see Clermont progress.
Chris Ashton vs Sitiveni Sivivatu:
Finally, there is a very important clash on the wing. Chris Ashton-a 2012 recruit from Northampton and a player who divides opinions worldwide-takes the number 14 shirt for Saracens. A winger who’s best international times may be behind him after two young guns were preferred in the Six Nations, Ashton has went missing in many a game over the last few years. However, a very well taken try against Ulster could signal a return to top level form and his pace and power mean that he is always a threat. On the other side, Sivivatu is Clermont’s trump card. One of the best finishers in the game, with 29 tries in 45 tests for the All Blacks, Sivivatu is the player Saracens fans will be most worried about. 6 ft 1 in and verging on 100kgs, the kiwi is a massive physical specimen and therefore is very useful when coming into the line, while his pace means that he is also a considerable handful on the outside. Given any sort of clean ball he will stretch the Saracens defence and have a significant say on the outcome of the match.
There are some very interesting match-ups here, and with other top level players who haven’t been mentioned here also on display, this Semi-Final is likely to be as close as the quarters these two tops sides emerged victorious from.
Prediction: Clermont win.