Chris Ashton may get fairytale finish with Saracens in cup final
Winger could break Vincent Clerc’s all-time European record in final outing with club
Saracens’ head coach Mark McCall: his side attempt to become the first English side since Leicester in 2002 to successfully defend the title. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
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It is clear Chris Ashton means business when scoring tries is not at the forefront of his mind. He has 36 to date in the European Rugby Champions Cup and can eclipse Vincent Clerc’s record against Clermont as Saracens attempt to become the first English side since Leicester in 2002 to successfully defend the title.
But number 37 at Murrayfield is not occupying his thoughts. “It is so irrelevant it actually doesn’t matter at all,” he said. Why? “It is a final – it doesn’t matter – we have just got to win.”
He may not admit it but breaking the all-time European record in his final outing for Saracens in the competition before joining Toulon would be a fairytale finish. He is quick to downplay his departure but Ashton’s exit from Saracens will leave a gaping hole.
With a tendency to polarise opinion he has come to typify the us-versus-the-world mentality that is such a key pillar of success for Mark McCall’s side. By the same token, playing today’s final against a backdrop of yellow and blue – Clermont fans will comfortably outnumber their Saracens counterparts – holds no fear. In fact, it is how they prefer it.
“We have experienced it and we know what to expect, and if the semi-final [against Munster] is anything to go by, I am sure it can’t be any worse,” added Ashton.
“We take energy from that and we like the fact that is the case – we are on our own out there and their fans are generally outweighing our own fans – it is something you get used to. The energy comes from within the group and it just gives you a focus. We don’t necessarily need a 16th man to get behind us, we generate our own energy and that is the way it has been for years.”
To suggest Clermont will have the neutrals’ support simply because they are not Saracens would be misleading however. Saracens, who line up with their six British & Irish Lions, may be ruthlessly clinical but Clermont have a top gear that is unmatched in Europe.
When the stars align, they play rugby from another galaxy but the problem all too often is an inability to get over the line. They have lost 11 of 12 domestic finals and have been in this position in Europe twice in the past four years, succumbing to Toulon on both occasions.
“We know what our history is,” said the Clermont and France fullback Scott Spedding. “We’re not going to hide from that. We’re proud of what we have achieved but we know we are lacking a few titles.
“We believe we are a new team now. We have a lot of new guys, and we are writing our own pages in the Clermont book. It’s pretty obvious what has happened in the past – we get reminded about it when we walk round town. We have a big responsibility to the people and the club.
“Clermont is a humble town, it’s a working-class town but the people are passionate about their rugby and their club. They are proud of their club. Playing for Clermont is a massive privilege but it is also a massive responsibility. There are a lot of people whose lives revolve around the club.”
Since Edward Griffiths, Brendan Venter and then McCall set in motion a project that has put Saracens at the head of the European heavyweights, very few players have chosen to leave and to join another club.
Ability to swagger
David Strettle, formerly Ashton’s wing partner, was one of them however and faces his old team-mates today. And while McCall joked he is not worried about any inside information – “They won’t listen to Stretts” – his former director of rugby acknowledged how well the ex-England wing is playing in France.
Spedding, who is joined in the back three by Strettle and another Englishman, Nick Abendanon, agrees. “Obviously Stretts likes to talk a lot. He’s been vital in sharing his knowledge of Saracens and what they’ll be like and what their gameplan is for a game like this. He’s one of the top try scorers in the Top 14 this year, he’s got a few in the Champions Cup too, so to have someone like him this week in the camp has been quite important.”
After Saracens’ remarkable shift in the semi-final against Munster and Clermont’s ability to swagger, there is a temptation to bill today’s final as the best attack against the most formidable defence – the irresistible force against the immovable object.
Saracens’ captain Brad Barritt is not so sure however. “The stats don’t lie,” he says. “We’ve scored close to as many tries as they have all season, hinged on the fact that our defence is really strong and something we pride ourselves on. But we know that when we get our game to click we’re as a deadly as anyone.”
None more so than Ashton, for whom the script may well be written.
– (Guardian Service)