Allan Massie: Saracens can stop all-French final

Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, looks on during the Saracens media session. Picture: Getty
Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, looks on during the Saracens media session. Picture: Getty
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THERE are two fascinating Champions Cup semi-finals taking place this weekend: Clermont Auvergne v Saracens and Toulon v Leinster. It is not only home advantage that makes the French sides favourites. Both have immensely strong squads, even though Clermont will still be without their French international half-backs, Morgan Parra and Guy Lopez.

It would probably be in the best interest of the cup if one of the French sides was to lose because there is more spice to the final if it is an international affair. Saracens may have the better chance of victory. They did, after all, beat Clermont heavily in last year’s Heineken, though they were at home then.

Even in England Saracens seem to be little-loved; they rarely play exciting rugby but are very tough.

Even in England, Saracens seem to be little-loved; they rarely play exciting rugby, but they are a very tough and well-organised team. Their presence in the final would at least give us a pinch of Scottish interest with Kelly Brown and Jim Hamilton in their squad. For Brown, this will be an opportunity to remind Vern Cotter of his quality and show him that he is still a big-match player. It’s difficult to believe that he wouldn’t be a valuable member of the Scotland World Cup squad.

Nevertheless Clermont at their best play with a combination of power, pace and skill that no other club in the northern hemisphere can match.

Even more than Clermont, Toulon are an international all-stars side, France-based but not really very French, as they rarely have as many as four French or French-qualified players in their starting line-up. On reputation, form and all-around strength – it’s difficult to see them losing to Leinster. Leinster indeed have done remarkably well to get so far in the cup, for they are a weaker side than they have been for years. They lie fifth in the Guinness Pro12 league, 12 points behind Glasgow and six behind the Ospreys in fourth place. So, with only three matches to go, they are unlikely to qualify for the knock-out stages – for the first time since play-offs were introduced. Then they reached this semi-final, relying on Ian Madigan’s excellent goal-kicking to beat Bath in a match in which Bath scored two tries and Leinster none. Moreover, they never looked like crossing the Bath line and it seems improbable that they can beat Toulon without scoring tries.

Admittedly, Toulon haven’t themselves been as impressive this year, but, with Matt Giteau recovered from injury and back to orchestrate their attack, are capable of scoring tries from anywhere. So the odds are heavily in Toulon’s favour.

Nevertheless Leinster, as they showed when recovering from more than 20 points down against Glasgow, are a team of remarkable resolution and resilience, quite accustomed to winning matches they looked like losing – as indeed they did in a couple of their pool games. Like their rivals Munster, they have a terrific European record and, if any team can upset the odds in a cup match, it is surely one of the Irish provinces.

Last week, meanwhile, we saw that power matters. Though Edinburgh held their own in the set-scrum against Munster, and mostly in the line-out, they found no answer to their opponents’ powerful and well-organised driving mauls.

They might have been more successful if David Denton hadn’t had to leave the field with a head knock a quarter of an hour into the game, for he has the ability to infiltrate and disrupt mauls, often even legally. But in his absence Edinburgh were at a loss. The consequences were obvious. If Edinburgh kicked for touch, they not only lost possession but regularly found themselves driven back ten, 15 or 20 yards. The same thing happened any time they conceded a penalty.

Munster were so confident of their ability to drive the maul forward that they turned down several good opportunities to kick for goal. Finally, Edinburgh’s predicament was made worse by the alertness of Conor Murray, the scrum-half judging nicely when to urge his forwards to continue their march towards the Edinburgh line or when to demand the ball from them as they were advancing and the Edinburgh defence perforce retreating.

The upshot was that, from less than a quarter-way into the match, Edinburgh were on the back foot. Admittedly they didn’t help themselves by meekly surrendering too much of what possession they had, either by dropping the ball, or by kicking badly. Too often, Munster players were able to field kicks from Nathan Fowles and Greg Tonks without being challenged. So it was all very disappointing – what’s called a reality check – and the worst possible preparation for their European Challenge Cup semi-final against the Newport-Gwent Dragons. That match will have been played before this column is in print. So one can only hope that if the Munster game is to be regarded as a dress rehearsal, the old theatre superstition that a bad dress rehearsal often precedes a good opening night has held good.

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