SCOTLAND captain Kelly Brown is as wary as anyone of the cauldron atmosphere that awaits Saracens when they take on Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final today, given his father grew up in the province.
Saracens will arrive at Ravenhill in confident mood after extending their lead at the top of the Aviva Premiership table to seven points with back-to-back wins over Harlequins and Wasps. The Men in Black can expect a wholly different challenge in Belfast, however, taking on an Ulster side who won all six matches in the tournament’s pool stage and are undefeated at home since September.
Brown’s father’s side of the family are all Irish and the Scotland back rower will have cousins in the crowd today, in Saracens shirts, he hopes. “My dad is from Ulster so I’ve been getting a lot of stories from him about the excitement and the level of interest in the game over there,” Brown said. “I’m expecting an unbelievable atmosphere. They could probably have sold out this match four or five times over which just shows the level of excitement and the level of expectation there is there, but as a player you want to be involved in these big games.”
He added: “All we can do is focus on ourselves, that’s what we’ve being doing this week. We’ve looked at Ulster and identified their main strengths, which there are a lot of, and we have tried to find a few weaknesses of which there aren’t that many. We want to go over there and impose ourselves on them and try to put them under as much pressure as we can.”
Saracens are used to unfamiliar settings as last season they played home matches at a variety of venues, including Watford, Wembley and Twickenham, until their new stadium in Barnet was built. The players are also growing used to the big occasion. Saracens have now reached the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for the past three seasons. “That experience definitely helps,” Brown said. “If you look at the squad now, we’ve got experienced players and even some of the younger guys like Mako and Billy Vunipola, they have played a lot of big games now. Playing at Ulster is the sort of thing you have to handle together and as a squad I think it’s the sort of thing we enjoy. We’ve played a lot of teams away – last season we played at something like nine different home venues – it will be tough but we’re really looking forward to it.”
Saracens beat Ulster on home soil at the same stage of the competition last year and there may be added motivation for the squad to progress again given captain Steve Borthwick is retiring at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, Leicester captain Ed Slater refuses to cast his Tigers as humble underdogs when they challenge Clermont’s supremacy at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
The rivals clash this afternoon for a place in the Heineken Cup semi-finals, where either Ulster or Saracens await.
Also at stake is Clermont’s intimidating home record of having amassed 74 successive victories in all competitions dating back to November 2009.
Slater admits such a great run cannot be ignored, but insists claiming a place in the last four of the Heineken Cup is a greater incentive than making history. “Everybody’s been talking about their record and how long it’s been going for. The players are aware of it,” Slater said. “The win itself will be huge as it’s the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. That’s the biggest incentive – you can’t get too wrapped up in that home record.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve got nothing to lose going over there and there’s no pressure. We have everything to play for.”
Uncapped Welshman Owen Williams stays at stand-off, keeping club captain Toby Flood on the bench, while Mathew Tait and Blaine Scully return at full-back and wing. Clermont have lost wing Sitiveni Sivivatu to a calf injury and full-back Lee Byrne to a knee problem, but hooker Benjamin Kayser, flanker Julien Bonnaire and lock Jamie Cudmore return to the pack.
The quarter-finals open with Toulouse at Thomond Park, where they face Munster, led by Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony.