05272017

Sarries on the brink of greatness ahead of Champions Cup final – Guscott

Saracens and Leinster

Saracens (left) progressed to the final with a win over Munster, while Clermont (right) beat Leinster

The Champions Cup has delivered a finale full of intrigue, a cliffhanger climax to end a humdinger of a tournament.

Saracens – serial winners with a cult-like collective mentality – take on Clermont Auvergne, whose sublime individual talents have too often been big-day bridesmaids.

Often in major finals, the only fireworks on the pitch are when the winning captain lifts the trophy. But both these teams are capable of scintillating rugby to light up Murrayfield.

It will be one to relish.

A 10s clash

Owen Farrell and Camille Lopez<!–

Owen Farrell and Camille Lopez faced off in the Six Nations when England played France in February

There is a paradox around this Saracens team.

They have been in the shake-down for major honours for the past five years. Last season, they landed a Premiership-Champions Cup double.

Yet when you read down their teamsheet, it is not the scary set of individual superstars that big-money French sides in particular have put together in this competition’s past.

I suspect that is exactly how they like it. Saracens’ success has been based around putting the team first.

But that approach can’t disguise the fact that fly-half Owen Farrell is fast becoming world class – if he is not there already.

When he initially emerged at Saracens, his game was based on his excellent distribution and dead-eyed place kicking. Now he has so much more.

His passing is sharper, his tactical kicking is more varied, he is a threat when he runs with the ball in hand and, if he doesn’t go through a gap himself, he has the sleight of hand to put a team-mate into one.

Opposite him, as in England’s narrow Six Nations win over France earlier this year, is Camille Lopez.

Lopez does not have either the flourishes or the fragility you sometimes associate with French fly-halves.

He was excellent in the semi-final win over Leinster, controlling the tempo of the match and minimising mistakes, and if Clermont are to win, Lopez will have to lead them to victory again.

The French side will not be able to outmuscle Saracens. Instead Clermont will have to beat them at their own game, by kicking often and smartly, defending stoutly and backing themselves to be sharper at exploiting the chances when they come.

That puts a lot of pressure on Lopez. If he gets frustrated by Saracens’ suffocating defence and lets his concentration slip, then Farrell and co won’t be caught.

The danger of deja vu

With the likes of Aurelien Rougerie, Damien Chouly and Morgan Parra, there is a huge amount of experience among the Clermont ranks.

Unfortunately for them, it is mainly experience of losing games like this.

Clermont losing the 2015 Champions Cup final against Toulon<!–

Clermont have lost two Champions Cup finals – both to Toulon – in 2013 and 2015

In 14 finals in the French Championship and top-tier European competition, Clermont have won just once.

Their fans travel in huge numbers and with great expectations. You saw the excitement when they poured on to the pitch after the win over Leinster and I’m sure they will outnumber Saracens in the stands.

That is great if they get in the lead and the yellow and blue flags are fluttering at Murrayfield. If it goes the other way though and Saracens go ahead, the sense of deja vu will be stifling.

It won’t just be the finals in which they have frozen either.

The last time they played Saracens in a knockout game on British soil was in the 2014 semi-finals. Saracens demolished them 46-6.

Clermont have to get out in front early and stay there to keep those gremlins at bay.

Saracens on the brink of greatness

Mark McCall’s team are three wins away from a quite astonishing feat.

Victory against Clermont, combined with beating Exeter and then either Leicester or Wasps in the Premiership final, would add up to a double-double.

Only the great Leicester side of the early noughties – containing the likes of Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Austin Healey – have done that before.

Maro Itoje<!–

Maro Itoje shared this picture of him and his team-mates enjoying themselves in Spain

And Saracens deserve every bit of their success. It is the culmination of a 20-year journey from a ramshackle home at Bramley Road.

In that time, they have evolved from a pragmatic, direct and effective team to a multi-dimensional outfit who mix flair with sparkling rugby intelligence.

I was fortunate to be part of a very successful side at Bath in the 1990s and when things are going well there is a togetherness that is very hard for anyone outside the group to understand.

Saracens are famous for their team-building trips aboard. After beating Munster in the semi-finals, they flew off to Spain and, judging by the pictures on social media, they had a great time.

But as memorable as the trips away are, nothing bonds players as much as overcoming opposition together.

If Saracens play as well as they can on Saturday, it won’t matter what Clermont do – they will have another success to look back on.

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