Two French clubs featured in the previous Murrayfield European Cup final, back in the Heineken days, and it was such a dull, drab and timid game that I don’t remember which they were. Today’s match between Clermont Auvergne and Saracens promises to be considerably livelier. They are the two best teams in Europe, even though neither may finish the season as their national champions; and both play intelligent and often audacious rugby.
That wasn’t the case with Saracens a couple of years ago, but now few of us, with bitter memories of their quarter-final against Glasgow, can doubt their ability in attack. Certainly they usually kick a lot, especially early in a match, relying on the accuracy of Richard Wigglesworth’s left boot to gain ground and put defenders under intense pressure. But that day they attacked with pace, power and imagination from the start and, but for last-ditch try-saving tackles from Lee Jones and Stuart Hogg, they might have been out of sight before the game was a quarter old.
Likewise, Clermont Auvergne blitzed Leinster in the first 20 minutes of their semi-final in Lyon. They’ve played almost all this European Cup without their most dangerous midfielder, Wesley Fofana – to my mind the best centre in the northern hemisphere – and still scored lots of tries. They have immensely powerful forwards – as, of course, do Saracens – and behind the scrum there is Morgan Parra, whose continued absence from the French squad mystifies me, despite the excellence of the young incumbent Baptiste Serin.
Every top team is now cosmopolitan and Clermont have two brilliant English wings, David Strettle (himself a former Saracen) and Nick Abendanon, late of Bath. Interestingly, Strettle, while acknowledging that, as the holders, Saracens are the number one team in Europe, remarks that Clermont’s best days are better than Sarries so he believes they will win. So indeed they may – if they strike one of the best days.
Saracens may have one advantage. Clermont have three good goal-kickers – Parra, Camille Lopez and, from a ridiculously long range, Scott Spedding – but Saracens have a great one, Owen Farrell, on current form the best goal-kicker in Europe.
I haven’t see the team announcement as I write, but whether he starts or comes on as a replacement, this will surely be the last appearance at Murrayfield of one of my favourite players, Aurelien Rougerie. We used to think of Al Kellock as the heart of Glasgow, but Rougerie is even more truly the heart of Clermont. He has been there since he was a small boy, following in his father’s footsteps. He played there before the club’s name was changed from Montferrand to its present more regional one. Astonishingly, he first played at Murrayfield, on the right wing for France, way back in 2002. Almost everyone else who played that day has retired, several of them many years ago. The Scotland halves were Gregor Townsend and Bryan Redpath, the wings Glenn Metcalfe and Chris Paterson. So, 15 years later here he is again. Over the years, he was in and out of the French national side – like most people, one might observe – but he has never been on a losing team at Murrayfield, having missed the 2006 match in which Sean Lamont scored two tries. If this is his last big game, I would be delighted to see him maintain that unbeaten Murrayfield record. Like Lamont, he is a player who has never given less than one hundred per cent.
There weren’t any surprises in Gregor Townsend’s selection for our summer tour. Some, doubtless, will think Edinburgh are under- represented after their win at Scotstoun last week. Duncan Weir’s goal-kicking was excellent that day but his from has generally been so poor this season that one can’t really think him unlucky to have been omitted. Three Edinburgh players who featured against Italy have not been selected – Simon Breghan, Grant Gilchrist and Cornell Du Preez. Gilchrist came in that day because Richie Gray was injured, De Preez because Josh Strauss was also unfit, while the choice of Alan Dell and Alex Allan as looseheads props ahead of Breghan can’t stir up much controversy. What is pleasing is to see Edinburgh’s young flanker Magnus Bradbury fit again and selected. Edinburgh have missed him over recent months. He’s a player with a great future and on this tour he should learn a lot from the captain John Barclay. It is, of course, good to see that Willem Nel is judged fit again too and it may be no bad thing that the domestic season ended last weekend for the Glasgow and Edinburgh players. Even a few days off will benefit most of them.