Sarries set for key clash in Clermont
October 8, 2010
Julien Malzieu has crossed the whitewash five times already this season for Clermont © Getty Images
Saracens return to the Heineken Cup after a two-year absence with a daunting trip to the Stade Marcel Michelin for a clash with reigning French champions Clermont Auvergne on Saturday.
Sarries made the last four in 2008 only to be outfoxed by eventual champions Munster. They have spent the past two seasons in the European Challenge Cup, during which time they have undergone some radical changes as a club - on and off the field. Losing Premiership finalists in May, they will now be intent on proving that they can carry impressive domestic form over into the European arena.
The same could also be said of their hosts this weekend. Clermont ended their agonising 99-year wait for a first French title in May and, after suffering a heart-breaking quarter-final exit at the hands of Leinster in last year's Heineken Cup, they will be determined to establish themselves as the No.1 side in Europe.
Clermont - Player to Watch: In truth, Sarries will have to pay close attention to both Julien Malzieu and Napolioni Nalaga. The Clermont wings have already contributed nine tries between them this season.
Clermont - Team News: New Zealand flanker Sione Lauaki and compatriot Ti'i Paulo make their H-Cup debuts. Julien Bonnaire returns to the back-row alongside Lauaki and Alexandre Lapandry, while recently-named Top 14 Player of the Year Morgan Parra lines up at scrum-half, where he will partner fly-half Brock James.
Saracens - Player to Watch: Who else but Schalk Brits? Perhaps the outstanding player in the Premiership, the pressure is now on the South African hooker to produce the goods in Europe's elite club competition.
Saracens - Team News: Saracens welcome back fullback Alex Goode after missing the last two weeks with a shoulder injury. Openside Andy Saull makes his first start of the season and he makes up a new look back-row with Jacques Burger and Kelly Brown at No.8. Ernst Joubert is named on the replacements bench. Brad Barritt and Adam Powell return to form the centre partnership and Carlos Nieto also starts at tight-head prop.
Key Battle: With the likes of Clermont's Bonnaire, Lauaki and Saracens' Brown and Premiership Player of the Month Burger all set to start, the battle for back-row supremacy will be worth the admission alone. Expect a succession of awesome collisions. We can't wait.
Trivia: Clermont had finished as runners-up in the French championship ten times before they eventually landed their first title this year.
Stats: Jacques Burger has made more tackles (64) than any other player in this season's Aviva Premiership.
"They should have won the Premiership last year. This season, they haven't lost anything and actually seem more powerful. This team will come to our home without any fear and with something to prove. We have been warned." - Clermont Auvergne head coach Vern Cotter
"We're in great shape: we've won four on the trot and we've beaten Northampton and Leicester. We can't be in a better position." - Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter
Prediction: This should be a titanic tussle but Clermont have home advantage and the greater top-level Heineken Cup experience. The French champions to prevail.
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