Thursday 26 April 2018

Clermont confident they can test Saracens' defence

Morgan Parra of Clermont. Photo: PA News
Morgan Parra of Clermont. Photo: PA News
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Compare where you stood after Saracens had strangled Munster in the first of the Champions Cup semi-finals last month with your position the next day when business closed in Lyon. If you felt that Clermont, the side romantics want to win, had enough grease and grunt to slip out of Sarries' boa constrictor routine then you were probably in the minority. And if those odds of 1/2 on Mark McCall's men are justified, we'll have yet another chapter in the epic, Bridesmaids of the Auvergne.

Between Top 14 and Europe it has been a veritable tale of woe. They managed to buck the trend domestically in 2010 as Joe Schmidt was packing his bags for Leinster, but were back on the losing trail five years later when Stade Francais edged them in the final. That was their 12th appearance on the last day; their 11th defeat.

To compound it, losing 12-6 in Paris that day was a unique double for they had been beaten a few weeks earlier by Toulon in the Champions Cup final. Two seasons before that they had lost at the same gig to the same opposition. You couldn't make this stuff up.

So surely every time Clermont get to the business end of a major competition they must ask themselves if it's fair to put their fans through such torture. Do they not dread the pressure that comes from getting so far so often? Benjamin Kayser, who joined them in 2011 - after the solitary Top 14 win - claims not.

"I hope there's an extra pressure because that's what being in a final is all about," he says. "We're not going to try and get there relaxed and change our habits. Obviously our record is not the best and my personal record is not the best. Every final has got its history, every season has got its history.

"I think we're a very different team to a few years ago so obviously we're going to use all this power and anger from the whole region, from the club, from our supporters, our families and from within ourselves to use it as maximum energy to beat the reigning champions. It's not a small task in front of us so we're going to go there with hopefully using that positive stress to create something extraordinary. But it's definitely not going to be our way of thinking, of saying that we need to get there relaxed and chilled because that's not the way you prepare for a final, I think."

Unfortunately for Big Ben, he is up against an outfit who, if they were in the same classroom, would be described as much quicker learners. In 2008, when Alan Gaffney was Saracens' coach, they lost a European semi-final to Munster because they neither expected to, nor believed, they could win. Four years later they were back in the knockouts, and well beaten at the quarter-final stage by Clermont.

Since then they have gradually, under Mark McCall, built themselves into a juggernaut. Losing in the 2014 final to Toulon looked like one of those marker darts to be followed by the money shot. And that came last season, beating Racing.

Three domestic titles in the last six seasons illustrates perfectly where they are at on that front. As does the performance against Munster last month on the European stage. Mark McCall wouldn't be the most effusive man on the circuit but he looked like he was trying to measure his words in the Aviva after the way his team had played against Munster. They had been streets ahead, especially in defence.

"We were the first to completely realise how good Saracens' rush defence is, and the tightness and pressure they want to put on opposition teams," Kayser says. "And if I'm being totally honest, I was a little bit disappointed with their campaign apart from when they beat Toulon away. But they hit hard and I think they hit it exactly on the spot in the semi-final, and they clearly showed everybody they were back and ready to compete again.

"We were all very impressed obviously with that dominance. Especially in the second half it didn't seem like Munster could go anywhere. Saracens were absolutely dominating, and on the front foot. But what you have to do, I think, is realise that we have a very, very strong attacking system. We're going to try and play by doing what we do, play with all our tools, all our skills, all our power. And we'll put their defence to the biggest test they've seen.

"So yes, they might be the best defence - they probably are the best defence in the Champions Cup, but I think we can be the best attack. So let's see who wins."

Fair enough. If it's Saracens then a double-double, on the home and Euro fronts, will be the crowning glory of McCall's reign. And if it goes to the Auvergne then a rugby-mad city will be taking a week off work.

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