Saracens aim to keep Carter on periphery
The hangdog mob of Saracens players who trudged from the Millennium turf two years ago after a pasting in the European Cup final from Toulon have mutated into a more compact and multifaceted side who will today endeavour to become the first team in the 20-year history of the tournament to go through unbeaten.
This Saracens squad is harder-edged and more layered than they were that day in Cardiff, more savvy, more self-aware, more multidimensional. They have conquered the Premiership (twice) and now it is time to breach the European frontier, to show that after four successive semi-finals they are made of champion stuff.
They are no longer just stranglers and sluggers, drawing the life from the opposition before pummelling them; they shape and create themselves these days to good effect. They arrive at this point with the best attacking record in the competition, averaging 34 points a game, up against the most unforgiving defence, that of Racing 92, who have conceded an average of only 12 points a match. Something has to give.
Much, rightly so, has been made of the talismanic influence of Racing fly-half Dan Carter. And, as he sat in the bowels of the Grand Stade de Lyon after a rain-drenched Friday morning training, seven months after he almost single-handedly won a World Cup for New Zealand, he had the same assassin's calm assurance about him, intent on doing to Saracens what he had done to Australia last October.
Yet, Saracens have their own orchestrator-in-chief in Owen Farrell, "the most improved player in Europe over the last six months", in the words of Racing coach and former Munster fly-half Ronan O'Gara. As the team have changed, so, too, has Farrell. He is more nuanced, more perceptive, more multi-pronged. But as Carter testified yesterday, the core of the Farrell persona is as spiky as ever.
"Owen is probably the complete opposite [to me]," said Carter. "He loves getting in amongst it and I really like that competitive nature, the way he gets stuck in."
Farrell, though, has expanded his horizons beyond the one-on-one combat, even if he has only recently returned from a two-week suspension for a dangerous tackle on Wasps' Dan Robson in the semi-final. That Saracens wings Chris Wyles and Chris Ashton top this season's European charts with nine tries between them is testimony to the vision of Farrell's game.
As a weather-gauge of the game, there is little doubt that the respective fortunes of the two No 10s will be indicative of so much.
No matter that Carter's Racing 92 half-back partner, Maxime Machenaud, is also a prime threat or that the Parisians' heavy-duty pack, with fellow Kiwi Chris Masoe a one-man strike force, offer a pounding presence, these two will be the key feature.
If Saracens are to become the first English side in nine years to lift the trophy, and if they are to deliver the first leg of a putative double, then they have to reduce Carter to peripheral status, a task beyond the scope of so many down the years. Carter has been nursing a leg injury but insists he is fit to fire.
The 8-9-10 axis in both teams will be at the heart of proceedings. Billy Vunipola against Chris Masoe, two thunderous line breakers: Richard Wigglesworth vying with Machenaud, the pinpoint box-kicking of the Saracen set against the livewire Frenchman.
In speaking of his team's half-backs, O'Gara could have been referencing any one of these six players. "At this level, it is all about presence," he said. "Max likes sticking his teeth in there, getting involved, while Dan is composed. But Dan is also capable of doing something unexpected, which is what singles him out."
Two years ago, Saracens flew into Cardiff on the day, trying to avoid tension in the build-up and only succeeded in spooking themselves.
"We were tense, stressed," said Wigglesworth. "We've been relaxed, not worried about the consequences of not winning it." Saracens are in the right frame of mind, primed to deliver. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Racing 92 v Saracens, Live, Sky Sports 2, 4.45