Preview: Champions Cup Final, Clermont v Saracens – 13/05/2017

Clermont head to Edinburgh hoping to end their run of European heartbreak against defending champions Saracens in the final of the Champions Cup.

Les Jaunards and their quest to finally win Europe’s premier competition is well known by now, having fallen in the final in 2013 and 2015 to bitter Top 14 rivals Toulon.

However even with seismic injuries this season to star centre Wesley Fofana and top finisher Noa Nakaitaci, Franck Azèma has plenty of talent at his disposal, and as a result it is no surprise to see Clermont through to another European final.

Very few squads on the continent can boast as much talent, and against both Toulon in the quarter-finals and then Leinster in the semi-final they showed excellent composure and a clinical edge.

Saracens too know all about being clinical. Last season’s winners, also over French opposition in the shape of Racing 92, were hit hard by injuries in mid-season to the Vunipola brothers and George Kruis, but class runs deep through Mark McCall’s squad.

No other club had more players named in the British and Irish Lions squad than the sextet from Saracens, all with realistic chances of maybe starting in the Test series, and Warren Gatland will be hoping to tap into that ruthless streak so often seen from Saracens in recent times.

Their quarter-final win over Glasgow Warriors was a masterclass in decoy runners and delayed passes, while by absorbing the emotion and atmosphere of facing Munster in Dublin in the last four, they proved again that very little fazes a well-rounded side looking to build a dynasty.

In team news, Clermont have named an unchanged line-up from the side who defeated Leinster in that semi-final last month.

Damien Chouly captains the side wearing six in the back row, with Morgan Parra partnering Camille Lopez at half-back and rising star Arthur Iturria joining Sébastien Vahaamahina in the second row.

Former Saracens winger David Strettle starts against his old side, with another former England international in Nick Abendanon on the other wing.

Meanwhile, loosehead prop Mako Vunipola packs down alongside Jamie George in the Saracens front row with Vincent Koch continuing at tighthead prop.

Maro Itoje and George Kruis are named at lock-forward, whilst in the back row Billy Vunipola starts at number eight alongside the in-form loose forward duo of Michael Rhodes (blindside flanker) and Jackson Wray (openside flanker).

Scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth partners Owen Farrell, whilst at centre, Brad Barritt captains the side partnering Marcelo Bosch. In the back-three, Sean Maitland (injury) is replaced by Chris Wyles on the left wing to join Chris Ashton (right wing) and Alex Goode.

On the bench, experienced front-row duo Schalk Brits and Petrus Du Plessis are joined by USA international Titi Lamositele, with Jim Hamilton taking his place amongst the replacements – Schalk Burger takes the other forwards replacements spot. Ben Spencer is the replacement scrum-half and will make his 100th Saracens appearance if featured. He joins Alex Lozowski plus the returning Duncan Taylor, in the matchday 23.

Players to watch: Showing just how far he has come in terms of composure in the semi-final, Camille Lopez’s two drop goals proved to be the difference against Leinster and the France number ten will need to be as accurate as possible when points are on offer to get Clermont in front.

Saracens meanwhile will be hoping for more deadly finishing out wide from former England man Chris Ashton. Ashton needs just one try to become the outright top try scorer in European Cup history. The Saracens wing is currently level with Vincent Clerc on 36 tries.

Form: Saracens could become the fourth club to win back-to-back European Cup titles, after Leicester Tigers, Leinster and Toulon. Holders Saracens have won one and lost one of their two previous finals, while Clermont have lost in their two final appearances; no club has played in three finals without winning at least one.

This will be the third time that Murrayfield has hosted European club rugby’s showpiece match. The two previous finals in the Scottish capital were each won by margins of fewer than seven points, with Toulouse beating Stade Français 18-12 after extra-time in 2005 while Leinster defeated Leicester 19-16 in 2009. This will be the seventh Anglo-French final and the third in the last four seasons; both of Saracens’ finals have been against French opposition, but this will be the first time Clermont have faced a team from outside the Top 14 in the final.

Four of the last six European Cup finals have been decided by margins of more than seven points, just three of the 15 finals before that had been decided by such a margin. Saracens are unbeaten in their last 17 games in the Champions Cup (W16, D1), equalling Leinster’s record which was set between 2010 and 2012 (also W16, D1).

Saracens will claim their 100th victory in European competition if they retain the trophy. To date, they have won 56 games in the Champions Cup and 43 in the Challenge Cup. Saracens have yet to concede a first-half try this season, however, Clermont have scored more tries than any other side in the first 40 minutes of matches (16).

The three top tacklers this season are all likely to feature in the final. No other player has made as many tackles as Sebastien Vahaamahina (90), Michael Rhodes (82) or Benjamin Kayser (80).

Prediction: Clermont feel a better side than the one we have seen in recent finals, approaching the event this time calmer and more assured. But Saracens, as we saw against Munster, can handle anything and have the ability to grind teams down. Which could mean more heartbreak for Clermont. Saracens by five.

The teams:

Clermont: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 David Strettle, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Rémi Lamerat, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Peceli Yato, 6 Damien Chouly (c), 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Raphael Chaume
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 Pato Fernandez, 23 Damien Penaud

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Petrus du Plessis, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Duncan Taylor

Date: Saturday, May 13
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 17:00 local (16:00 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Jon Mason (Wales)


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