Saracens' chances of reaching the Heineken Cup final for the first time have been given a major boost after Clermont Auvergne captain Aurelien Rougerie was ruled out of Saturday's last-four clash through injury.
Rougerie is suffering from the hamstring strain he sustained last Saturday during Clermont’s surprise 22-6 loss to Racing Metro and is replaced by Benson Stanley at outside centre.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall insists the question mark over Rougerie’s fitness had not altered his side’s preparations this week but admits the 33-year-old’s absence represents a big loss for the French side.
“He’s obviously a world-class player and he’s been a phenomenal leader for Clermont like Steve [Borthwick] has been for us down the years,” McCall said. “But if you look down their team sheet, there’s vast experience so like a lot of top teams I think they can accommodate a loss like that.
“They’ve got Benson Stanley, who isn’t too shabby, to take his place – it’s a loss, I’m sure it is for them, but they’ve got a very experienced group.”
Rougerie will still travel with the squad to the match at Twickenham but it is flanker Julien Bonnaire who will wear the armband. Clermont boss Vern Cotter played down the effect Rougerie's injury will have on his team's performance. "We knew after the match against Racing it was not looking good," Cotter said.
“We worked with the others this week knowing he may not play. It doesn’t change much, you expect those things to happen – obviously someone else can come in, it changes things a bit but not too much.”
The Men in Black were relieved to see Owen Farrell come through training unscathed this week after he was forced off at half-time against Northampton with an injury to his right foot a fortnight ago. The selection of the England number 10 is particularly important given second choice Charlie Hodgson is missing with a calf injury sustained on Tuesday.
Should Farrell have to withdraw during the match, Alex Goode will step in at fly-half, having deputised there on a handful of occasions in the past. The semi-final marks something of a yardstick for Saracens, who were beaten 22-3 and outclassed by Clermont in the tournament's last eight two years ago, but, as Cotter noted, McCall's men are "stronger, better and more powerful" this time around. The French giants are renowned for their fast starts, and McCall believes the opening stages of the contest at Twickenham will be crucial.
“Clermont are a quality side with quality players throughout – they’re a side who have been there or thereabouts in this competition for the last four or five seasons,” McCall said. “We’ve got a plan – there are certain things we think we need to get right and areas we need to be very strong in to make that plan work.
“They’re not particularly weak in any area, they start games very well, extremely well, and we want to ensure as much as possible that we control the field position in the first 25 minutes of the match. “It’s about not allowing them to do what they’ve done to other teams. It’s easier said than done.
When asked to single out a player in the Clermont XV he considered to be the danger man, McCall pinpointed Sitiveni Sivivatu. In his six games in the competition so far, the explosive winger has beaten 20 defenders, made 14 clean breaks and gained 510 metres – the most of any player on either side.
“The problem with Sivivatu is he pops up everywhere and he pops up in unique and unusual positions for a winger and it’s hard to make plans for that,” McCall said.
One player particularly eager to finish this campaign on a high is Saracens captain Borthwick who is retiring at the end of the season. The 34-year-old, who has 57 caps for England, will be hoping the match is not his last appearance at Twickenham, with Saracens still gunning for a place in the Aviva Premiership final in May. “It’s fantastic to be involved in games like this . . . The group has experienced a lot together – it’s been through some good times and some challenging times.”