LONDON, May 11 (Reuters) - It was Clermont Auvergne’s misfortune that in their first two European Cup finals they came up against Toulon at the height of their powers so it seems almost unfair that in their third they face a Saracens side arguably even more complete.
Clermont were pipped by a point in 2013 and beaten 24-18 two years later as Toulon’s collection of “Galacticos” completed their hat-trick of titles.
Saracens’ model could not be any more different from Toulon’s but, having built from the most humble of beginnings, the north London club have emerged as a monumental force in the game and have become the clinical masters at playing the occasion.
Last year they hammered Racing 92 in the final before winning the English Premiership and few are betting against another double.
They face Exeter away in a tricky domestic semi-final but before that their focus is on Clermont in Edinburgh as they seek to become the fourth club to retain the European title after Leicester, Leinster and Toulon.
Director of rugby Mark McCall has done a superb job in marshalling his resources through a demanding season, resting many of his top names when he can to give the team maximum power when it really matters.
The presence of six Saracens in the British and Irish Lions squad, more than any other club, is an indicator not only of the quality of their personnel, but also the form, even if free-scoring winger Chris Ashton did not interest Warren Gatland.
Ashton needs one try to become the competition’s all-time leading scorer, currently level with former France winger Vincent Clerc on 36.
Saracens were at their clinical best in the semi-final against Munster in Dublin, soaking up relentless early pressure, quieting the crowd, then slowly and surely taking an absolute stranglehold on the game. “You’ve got to beat Saracens three or four times to get past them,” said Wasps director of rugby Dai Young after his team finally subdued them last week in the Premiership, albeit with McCall resting Owen Farrell, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Richard Wigglesworth and Brad Barritt.
Clermont coach Franck Azema agreed.
“They are a steamroller, from the first to the last minute,” he said. “Our defence will have to apply constant pressure to prevent them from getting into their stride.”
Clermont, who beat Saracens in the 2015 semi-finals, come into the game buoyed by a 30-26 home win over Top 14 leaders La Rochelle to secure second place in the regular season.
They were also impressive in their European Cup quarter and semi-finals, with France flyhalf Camille Lopez helping them to victory with some key drop goals.
They are fiercely competitive at the breakdown and their organised and disciplined defence - giving away a tournament-low 7.8 penalties per game in the pool phase - means Saracens will have to earn every inch of ground.
Saracens will be without winger Sean Maitland, ruled out for the remainder of the season due to an ankle injury, with Chris Wyles expected to come in.
It will be a special day too for Clermont’s former England wing David Strettle, who has been in superb form this season and would dearly love to get one over the club where he spent five happy years before moving to France in 2015
Editing by Ed Osmond