DUBLIN, IRELAND — After two high-profile, high-intensity semi-finals it’s hard to believe that tomorrow is the European Rugby #ChampionsCup Final.Yes, tomorrow’s final in Edinburgh between reigning champions, Saracens, and perennial almosts, Clermont Auvergne, is shaping up to be an absolute cracker, but the buzz that should surround Europe’s grand finale doesn’t seem to be there.
At least that’s the feeling in rugby communities in large parts of Europe at the moment, barring Sarries and Clermont circles.
Hopefully, for the sake of the players, traveling supporters, and the longevity of the tournament, tomorrow will be the spectacle appropriate of a European final, especially with respect to how many people put their butts into seats at Murrayfield.
Despite the lack of build up there are at least two pillars of certainty going into tomorrow’s match: two fantastic teams in Saracens and Clermont.
Saracens are looking to become only the fourth club in European rugby history to win back-to-back titles. The other three teams to achieve the feat so far have been Leicester (2001-02), Leinster (2011-12), and Toulon (2013-15).
Tomorrow’s final is the north London club ‘s third European final in the last five years and the third time they will face French opposition at this stage of the competition.
Looking at Saracens tactically, they effectively strangled what had been a thriving Munster attacking unit in the semi-finals, a clinical combination of line speed and width-denial forcing the Irish province to play bunched and uncreative.
Director of Rugby, Mark McCall, is a stickler for game plan adherence and disciplined execution even under the most extenuating circumstances. Munster had the north Londoners deadlocked for the better part of 60 minutes in the semi-final but prevailed from the contest thanks to their unwavering faith in their plan of attack.
On attack they are good. Billy Vunipola leads the charge from the forwards and Owen Farrell takes control of their backs and kicking duties. They are savagely opportunistic and are clinical from within 20 m of goal.
Chris Ashton, just one try away from being Europe’s outright try-scoring leader, and American Chris Wyles always give an extra bit of dynamism on the outer edges of the pitch as well.
Having said that, Saracens domination emanates from their defense.
Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch are a wall of force in the midfield and have been outstanding throughout the competition. Maro Itoje and George Kruis are one of, if not the best second row pairings in the northern hemisphere. Along with individual defensive stalwarts like flanker, Michael Rhodes, and hooker, Jamie George, it will be extremely difficult for Clermont to unlock this defensive unit.
Clermont are the perennial bridesmaids of European competition.
Almost as if inspired by Katherine Heigl’s 27 Dresses (not ashamed to have seen that movie), the French giants have always been one step removed from Europe’s top honors.
They previously appeared in the 2013 and 2015 finals, both of which resulted in losses to bitter French rival, Toulon.
Something about this Clermont team feels different from those of wedding-day past, though.
We’ve watched Clermont grow to be one of the best all-around teams in the northern hemisphere over the last 10 years, especially on attack.
However, the offensive ferocity they’ve displayed against their last three opponents in European Rugby Champions Cup competition (Leinster, Toulon, and Exeter) positively sets them apart from the ghosts of championships past.
In their semi-final against Leinster, Clermont raced to a 15-0 halftime lead in what was one of the most emphatic opening statements in European Rugby Champions Cup history. A try each from Peceli Yato and David Strettle within the first 15 minutes of that match showed the blistering strength of the quick-recycling Clermont attack, efficiency and clinical precision underlining their dominant opening quarter display.
Tactically, fly-half, Camille Lopez, has picked up excellent form of late and has strengthened his partnership with scrum-half, Morgan Parra, facilitating easy flow between forwards and backs play.
In the midfield, Aurellien Rougerie has mystifyingly broken down defenses with clinical precession. His partner in the center, Remi Lamerat, has an uncanny acuity to draw defenders, opening spaces for Rougerie and wingers Nick Abendonon and David Strettle to advance into.
In the forwards, second-rower Sebastien Vahaamahina has made a name for himself thanks to his brute strength and surprising agility. He, as well as flanker (and captain) Damien Chouly and #8 Fritz Lee make for a vertically intimidating unit on top of the speed they possess. Clermont have affectively used their size to influence the set piece, particularly line-outs, in their favor. Possession is obviously going to be very important in tomorrow’s final, so retaining ball at the set piece will be critical.
They are a good defensive units as well, but at times find themselves jumbled and vulnerable to flat passes and short kicks behind the defensive line. Leinster’s comeback during the semi-final set off some alarm bells in the Clermont coaching camp, so it will be exciting to see how they adjust from that April 23rd clash.
The Concise Conclusion
This final couldn’t be more symbolic of a yin-yang if it tried. Both teams are very, very good with different aspects of specialization. Saracens are a brilliant defensive unit and have the ability to wear down teams methodically, while Clermont are more inclined to firework displays of attack, pushing the scoreboard to its limit despite defensive flaws.
I’m not expecting it to be the most well attended final ever, but if you’re in town for this match you’ll be sorry not to see it…it’s going to be explosive.
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