|Racing Metro and Saracens square off in the European Rugby Champions Cup Final on Saturday evening.|
Our rugby scribe takes a look at the 2016 European Rugby Champions Cup Final being contested by Racing Metro and Saracens at the Grand Stade de Lyon on Saturday.
So after nine months of hard hitting, action packed rugby we’ve finally arrived at the pinnacle of European game; The European Rugby Champions Cup Final. While the tournament’s gimmicky nature – could they try any harder to make the branding of the tournament look identical to that of football’s Champions League? I think not – put me off a bit when it took over from the Heineken Cup back in 2014, I have to say it has now grown on me.
While the actual rugby on display during the past nine months fell well short of that seen on Southern-Hemisphere playing fields during the Super Rugby season, the two sides contesting this year’s final have some real quality players in their squads that could light up Lyon this Saturday.
So will a Dan Carter-led Racing Metro secure the converted trophy on French soil or will Owen Farrell and the ‘Wolf Pack’ break French hearts?
To Win (80 Mins)
Racing Metro 9/10 | Draw 16/1 | Saracens 19/20
To Lift Cup
Racing Metro 8/10 | Saracens 1/1
Has there ever been a rugby player so capable of making an impact as Daniel Carter? While Metro already had an extremely talented squad that boasted the likes of Joe Rockocko, Johan Goosen, and Juan Imhoff, the signing of Dan Carter, at the beginning of the season, completed a puzzle that was desperately short of a talismanic centrepiece.
The All Black legend has been in sensational form during Racing’s European campaign racking up 72 point tally in seven outings. While those aren’t the best numbers ever produced by the ‘Dan the Man’ you have to take into account that he often left the field well before the full-time whistle.
While I did hint at this Metro side being a bit of a one man band earlier in the tournament, my opinion has changed drastically since their knock-out phase performances.
Their quarter-final encounter with defending Champions Toulon illustrated just how capable their centre pairing of Alexandr Duomolin and Johan Goosen are. The combination fronted up brilliantly to Toulon’s main man Ma’a Nonu, while Chris Masoe and his back row compatriots nullified Toulon’s ball carrying machines, Duane Vermeulen, and Juan Smith.
The semi-final against Leicester Tigers was also a closely fought affair which was swung in Racing’s favour by a 73rd-minute long range penalty courtesy of Johan Goosen.
While the majority of that game resembled trench warfare, there was an early moment of brilliance from skipper Maxine Machenaud. Joe Rockocko had gone on one of those trademark runs of his that was the bane of many a Springbok outfit in the early 2000’s. With Rockocko having been hauled down just meters short of the goal line, Machenaud did what any half back worth his salt would have in that situation; the diminutive nine picked up the ball and sniped his way over the tryline to opening the scoring.
The recap of Machenaud’s try isn’t just a way for me to fill a few lines, however. The reason I highlighted this try is mainly due to 'Saries fringe defense. While the Wolf Pack are one of the top defensive outfits in all of Europe, they do sometimes leave a bit of space in between the players stationed in the pillar and post defensive positions. And if Machenaud sees one of these slight openings, he’s likely to cut through it like a hot knife through butter.
The London-based club are the epitome of what a European rugby side should be; cool, calculated and methodical. We all know the dire conditions up north hamper free flowing rugby; Wasps tried emulating a southern-hemisphere brand of rugby this season and while it did bring success - they made it to the semi-final stage of the Champions Cup - their enigmatic style of play couldn’t see them past a resolute and methodical Saracens outfit.
Don’t get it twisted though, 'Saries are capable of turning on the style when necessary, they have some fantastic outside backs who love a good old counter and a fullback who’s capable of sparking an attack from deep inside his own half. They also have an outside centre who is one of the most destructive attackers in world rugby.
Marcelo Bosch and his centre partner, former Sharks man Brad Barritt, are probably the most well-matched combination in the northern hemisphere. Barritt is a throwback to the old school South African twelve who loves nothing more than to take or make contact. Bosch, on the other hand, has a bit more panache and guile to his game but is still a brilliant defender.
It’s not only the 'Saries centre pairing that packs a mean punch, though. Talismanic pivot Owen Farrell relishes the physical stuff. His ability to take the ball to the gainline is crucial to Saracens offensive structure.
Farell is far from a one-trick pony though; he’s also got an astute kicking game and a silky set of hands. He’s more than capable of grabbing a game by the scruff of the neck due to his aforementioned attributes.
While I could wax lyrical about Farell and his mesmerizing game all day, it would be unjust of me not to mention the magnificent forward pack that lays the groundwork for him to do his thing.
Mako Vunipola and Petrus du Plessis are two of the most well-rounded props plying their trades in Europe. Both men are exceptional ball carriers but this doesn’t mean they are weak scrummagers, far from it in fact.
The duo are brilliant exponents of the dark arts of front row play and they have a hooker who’s also capable of scrumming the daylights out of his opposite number in the form of Jamie George. The England international has been on the sidelines for quite a few months now and he will certainly be raring to go for this one.
'Saries also have the luxury of bringing impact phenomenon Schalk Britz on if they are chasing the game. The former Western Province stalwart is one of the most dynamic runners with the ability to step, outpace, or break through a tackle in the more traditional front rower manner; head first. Britz may just turn out to be the man who swings the game in favour of 'Saries.
Stats That Matter
As I mentioned above, Saracens are yet to lose a game in this year’s tournament. Their incredible run of eight victories is one of the most impressive stats you’ll come across this year. Even more impressive than that is the points differential they registered during the group stage of the tournament where they racked up a staggering 220 points whilst only conceding 73.
Metro may not have picked up as many points for in the group stage as Saracens but they did manage concede three points fewer than this weekend’s opponents.
In terms of pedigree in Europe, neither side is yet to taste the joy of a European Champions Cup final victory with Saracens best finish coming in the 2013/14 season where they ended the competition runners-up. While for Racing, this will be the club’s first appearance in a Champions Cup final.
French sides have won three out of the last five finals while the last time an English side claimed European honours was back in 2007 when Wasps beat Toulouse at Twickenham.
Verdict: Saracens 19/20