Friday 17 January 2020

England's finest primed to ignite on the rebound

Mark McCall knows the physical battle will be pivotal for Saracens, writes Eddie Butler

It is not easy to think of a return to Vicarage Road from anywhere as an upgrade, and especially not from Wembley and the crowd of 83,761 that last Saturday set a new record for attendance at a club game. But Saracens are back at their dilapidated home -- characterful, in need of some modernisation, as the estate agents might put it -- and their fixture today eclipses that top-of-the-table domestic clash with Harlequins.

The quarter-final against ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup is grand enough in its own right, but it also sets Saracens apart as the sole representatives of the English system in Europe's knock-out stages. The players may have better things on their minds right now than the relative ease with which the three Irish provinces in the last eight qualified for the Heineken Cup in the first place, but it does appear that Saracens will be more widely embraced as ambassadors of a victimised Premiership than as the defending champions of that league. At a time of victories determined by tiny margins, a sense of unfair play may help.

Of course, Clermont may say that they do not exactly have it easy either, battling through the closing stages of the Top 14 regular season, having supplied eight players to France in the Six Nations. It could be argued that if they can start two of them -- the second-row Julien Pierre and new discovery at fullback, Jean-Marcellin Buttin -- on the bench, then they are better equipped than many teams to deal with the pursuit of honours on twin fronts. Clermont do not worry about merely qualifying for next year's Heineken Cup; they want to win it and the Top 14's prize, the Bouclier de Brennus, too.

Morgan Parra at scrumhalf is not one to take defeat with a shrug. The centre Wesley Fofana is the form player of French rugby, while midfield partner Aurelien Rougerie and lineout guru Julien Bonnaire want to cram in the trophies while they still have strength in their legs. Lee Byrne, who keeps Buttin out at fullback, has rediscovered his touch of three years ago.

Like Saracens, Clermont are currently second in their domestic league, to Toulouse . But on their day they play the most consummate rugby. New Zealander Vern Cotter, highly-rated back home, is their coach; their pack is huge and their backs almost as vast, with Julien Malzieu no doubt seething after being dumped by France. This is not for the delicate of constitution.

Saracens relish rugby on that score. They are tough by upbringing, the South African imports sweeping into Southgate, the ever-friendly rugby enclave of north London. Mouritz Botha and Brad Barritt may be plastic Brits, but they are polymer with the strength of steel. The contest between the second-row combinations -- Botha and Steve Borthwick against the ever so slightly volatile Canadian Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines -- should keep the officials on their toes.

If Saracens have a weakness, it is that they tend to pile a lot of forwards into the breakdown. Nothing wrong in that if recycled possession is swiftly delivered but, in that Wembley encounter with the Premiership leaders, Harlequins put fewer forwards into the rucks and yet came away with quicker ball, especially in the build-up to their three tries. Saracens had much more of the ball, but not the better kind of possession.

The decisions about who goes in and who stays out and the effect of that flow of human traffic on the passing that follows are sensitive. Complaints about the formulaic structures of the phase-game of our times may be offset by an appreciation of the delicate balance between the fine maths and the sheer power of the collisions. We all want to see the subtlety of Charlie Hodgson and the artistry of Dave Strettle and Alex Goode but, even back in supposedly halcyon and less rigid days, sometimes there was nothing but fury to tolerate for an hour or more. So, brutalisation must come first.

Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, said that against Harlequins the "collisions weren't good enough. Physically they were better than us." Given that Sarries also confessed to being surprised by the intensity of the Heineken Cup last season and used the shock of exiting Europe at the pool stages to their advantage on the domestic front thereafter, a reaction is expected to follow now. After their upset on the physical front in the Premiership, they should be in the mood to make amends against Clermont. The high-tensile polymer Brits need a little surge on to quick ball to point their team in the right direction.

Because of defeat to Harlequins, Saracens should win today. As Strettle said: "We take pride in fighting back." A backlash against one of the best sides in Europe certainly counts as an upgrade, and may even be elevated to the high point of Saracens' time in the Watford home that needs a little bit of work done on it.


Saracens v Clermont Auvergne,

Sky Sports 2, 4.30

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