EDINBURGH, Scotland — Saracens have been compared to many things in their time, but this week they were likened to a ‘steamroller’. They should take Clermont Auvergne coach Franck Azema’s comparison as a great compliment.
As Edinburgh welcomes those from south of the border and from across the Channel, Murrayfield is ready host Saturday’s Champions Cup final which sees the Saracens juggernaut come up against the “neutral’s team” Clermont Auvergne, as Mark McCall put it.
When Saracens broke their Champions Cup hoodoo with the 21-9 win over Racing 92 in Lyon last year, they spoke of how they had taken inspiration from the San Antonio Spurs, and their “pounding the rock” credo of learning from setbacks and eventually getting over the line. Brad Barritt referenced it a matter of minutes after the fulltime whistle had blown, even before they had been handed the trophy, but it is just one aspect of this remarkable side’s DNA.
Having finally split the rock last year, they have not taken on new outside perspective as fresh inspiration, instead they still harness that motivation alongside their well-known ‘wolfpack’ mentality. Saracens’ culture is a constant rotating, evolving process where strength comes from their teammates, coaches and families.
Owen Farrell steps out for the captain’s run ahead of the 2017 Champions Cup final (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
“The culture we’ve created has been within the group, and each victory or the hurt of a defeat, there is a constant strive for improvement,” Saracens’ club captain Brad Barritt tells ESPN. “And where we are now is testament to what the whole group has done over past six or seven years.
“In terms of the culture, it’s a collective understanding that the sum of all the parts is far more important than the individual.
“True Saracens are people those who put the club and the shirt before themselves and there’s a never-say-die attitude as well. You need characters, trust and in return, the club truly cares about the individuals. The players have a sense of belonging with the club are welcomed well. The families are treated unbelievably well and in return the players have such an attachment to the club.”
Saracens now stand as reigning Aviva Premiership — they have won the last two — and European champions ahead of Saturday’s final. They have a target on their backs — Billy Vunipola said earlier in the week that “no one likes the defending champions — but they have experienced their own fair share of European heartbreak, with Clermont a constant menace.
Barritt endured the quarterfinal defeat to Clermont in 2012 and the semifinal loss in 2015. He was also there in Cardiff watching Toulon lift the final Heineken Cup in 2014 when they fell 23-6 to Jonny Wilkinson’s band of galacticos. But from heartbreak comes an understanding of shortcomings and learning how to prevent a future repeat.
“It’s about learning from the defeats and being eager to improve. Pounding the rock sums up that.
“Winning cups are a by-product of the culture. Each game is self-important as when you take focus off the end goal, then you can enjoy the journey. It’s about refocusing, and getting back to reality on the journey. We say there’s something special at Saracens but we are a group of highly motivated who come together and aim to achieve that.”
Continuity is also key. When they lose a coach, they appoint from within.
The same goes for the playing group with retention favoured over recruitment. When players are bought in, they are met with an all-encompassing culture. From this amalgamation, comes success and Saturday offers them the chance to join Leinster, Leicester and Toulon as a team who have managed the feat of winning back-to-back European titles.
Clermont Auvergne go through their final training session at Murrayfield. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)
But Clermont aren’t here to bask in the glow of Saracens. Their star burns bright on the European stage, with Murrayfield expected to be draped in the blue and yellow of those men from Auvergne. They saw off Toulon and Leinster in the knockout stages to book their places in the final.
They are a bunch of players drawn far and wide and the club aren’t afraid to bring in fresh faces to kickstart a new, renewed push for honours. Just 11 of Saturday’s matchday 23 were there in 2015 when they fell to Toulon, and six experienced the same losing feeling in 2013 when they were defeated by the same opponents.
Saturday offers them the chance to escape that tag of European bridesmaids, but they are wary of Saracens’ threats.
“Saracens are a steamroller from the first to the last minute,” Azema said. “They have a very pragmatic way of playing, very well oiled, which everyone sticks too and which builds the scoreboard little by little.
“We have to be very vigilant and concentrated to limit the impact of their big ball carriers. We have to be efficient while making sure not to be too focused on those carriers and risk opening the space around them. Our defence has to exert a constant pressure on them to prevent them from unleashing a style which makes them difficult to beat.”
They are respectful comments, but on the flip side, they are hardly an impotent force. In David Strettle and Nick Abendanon they have two of Europe’s finest finishers, while Scott Spedding — the French international – is not shy of making a break from the back of the field. Even without Wesley Fofana, they have threats in the midfield and two of the finest halfbacks in Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez. And all that before you get to their well-drilled pack with Damien Chouly heading it up at blindside.
“The team has learned the mistakes of last year’s pool stage where we didn’t play well,” Abendanon told ESPN. “We are much more experienced now for the big games as a group. We are much better at coping with pressure which will be key against Saracens.”
Stop the Saracens steamrollers and Clermont Auvergne could break their duck. But as so many teams have found out on Saracens’ current 17 match unbeaten run in Europe, it is easy enough in theory, but so difficult in practise. It promises to be a truly memorable occasion in Murrayfield as Les Jaunards’ incredible travelling support try to become Clermont’s 16th man against the team chasing their second European title in as many years.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY