WESTWOOD, CA – The time has finally arrived for a new champion to be crowned in the arena of European rugby. The world’s watchful eyes have followed the European Rugby Champions Cup since the season began back in November, 2015 and I hardly believe there were many who would have predicted a Saracens vs. Racing 92 final.
Aviva Premiership side Saracens went undefeated in Pool 1, smashing their way past former European championship winners Ulster and Toulouse as well as outclassing Champions Cup newcomers Oyonnax in the process.
Racing 92, a Parisian outfit that as recently as 2007-08 was competing in the French Second Division, marched their way into the final in Lyon after topping Pool 3 over the likes of Northampton, Glasgow, and Scarlets, and grinding their way past three time reigning champions Toulon and to time European championship when is Leicester in the knockout stages.
With neither side having ever won Europe’s top prize before, Le Grand Stade de Lyon will play host to rugby history packed to the brim with nearly 60,000 spectators. Prepare yourself for the highly anticipated Saracens vs. Racing 92 rematch and see who our experts chose as winners as Rugby Wrap Up tackles the European Rugby Champions Cup Grand Final!
Expert Picks Panel Grand Finale:
Racing 92 vs. Saracens
Grand Stade de Lyon
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Kickoff: 11:45 AM EST
For French club Racing 92, the journey to the Champions Cup final is the stuff of dreams, the absolute high water mark for a side that has rapidly become one of the most powerful in Europe.
With their tandem coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, Les Ciel et Blanc have reshaped what it means to be a French club side, splicing the strength and power of rival French club Toulon with the speed and agility of a Super Rugby sided to create a deadly mixture.
Undoubtedly their story of the season has been the acquisition of Kiwi fly half Dan Carter, a World Cup and Super Rugby winner who has become the poster boy for Racing’s success. His accuracy with the boot this season has guided the Parisian outfit through many a sticky situation, best exhibited by his 11 points against Toulon in Racing’s 19-16 quarter-final victory.
Carter will resume his partnership with French scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, who himself has taken kicking duties into his own hands in Carter’s occasional absence. The chemistry at half back and out half has been remarkably efficient and has led the Racing attack for weeks on end.
In the rest of the Parisian’s backline, French and South African centres Alexandre Dumoulin and Johannes Goosen once again phone their midfield pairing much like they did in the pool stages, while Brice Dulin returns to his usual position at fullback after three weeks out with a hamstring twinge. Juan Imhoff and Kiwi Joe Rokocoko both take position on the wings.
As for the Racing forwards, only one change has been made since they’re handy victory over Leicester a fortnight ago, the inclusion of Kiwi silent assassin Chris Masoe. An instrumental part of all of the forward packs he has played for, Masoe represents an x-factor for the already stacked French club. Most importantly, though, French hooker Dimitri Szarzewski returns to the lineup following a right knee injury sustained in the quarter-final, sending Virgile Lacombe to the bench.
As for Saracens, the north Londoners travel to France for their second Champions Cup final in three years, the last outing being there loss to Toulon at the Millennium Stadium in 2014. Saracens won their last encounter with Racing 92 in last seasons quarter-final, despatching the Parisiens handily in the process.
The Sarries story of the year is two pronged, a mixture between the raw, unadulterated power of Billy Vunipola and the precision oriented finesse of Owen Farrel. Vunipola has been the beacon of forward supremacy both in Europe and domestically, accruing the most tackles in both competitions and retaining the lead for most metres gained after contact in this Champions Cup season. Although Farrell has had his ups and downs, his play has been pivotal when he is on fire. He, like Carter, is deadly accurate from the kicking boots, but unlike Carter, has a bit more experience a he, like Carter, is deadly accurate from the kicking boots, but unlike Carter, has a bit more experience at attacking the game line at pace against northern hemisphere teams. His pace and agility will be the key to the Saracen backline breaking out into open space.
For the Saracen forwards, the Vunipola Brothers once again start together, Mako at #1 and Billy at #8. Brits, du Plessis, young English sensation Itoje, Kruis, Rhodes, and Fraser round out the rest of the Saracen forwards in sequential order, an untouched forward pack from the one that dominated Wasps in Reading a fortnight ago.
In the backline, Richard Wigglesworth get the staff once again at scrum-half and will resume his pairing with Farrell. Englishman Brad Barritt, who will captain Saracens at the Grand Stade de Lyon tomorrow, once again partners with Duncan Taylor in the centre, a pairing that has been so lucrative for Saracens that head coach Mark McCall went so far as to say they were unstoppable.
English wonder kid Alex Goode once again start at full-back, a decision that it’s two of Europe’s best #15’s against each other in a European final.
Most importantly for American rugby fans, USA Rugby International Chris Wyles once again takes the touchline at wing and will square off against Juan Imhoff, a wingers battle of the decade.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall advertised confidence and caution talking to the press mid week saying, “We beat them last year in the quarter-final, but they have moved on since then and have, of course, added Dan Carter to their side. But it would be a big, big mistake to think you are going to go and get Dan Carter – he has been doing this for a very long time.”
A new name will be etched into European club rugby history tomorrow after what is sure to be a firework display in Lyon. 14 of the last 20 finals have been decided by seven points or fewer, and with the dominance displayed in this year’s competition by both finalists, I can’t see you this year being any different. Hopefully, for us spectators, it will be edges of the seat stuff throughout the match!
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