Saracens vs. Clermont: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Heineken Cup Semi-Final
Saracens will face the demons of last season's Heineken Cup exit to Toulon this Saturday when they welcome Clermont Auvergne to Twickenham with a tournament final in sight.
This time, Mark McCall's side will seek to overcome their Top 14 opponents at the semi-final stage, although Vern Cotter's travelling side promise to be a task of similar stature.
Two star-studded line-ups will decide the tie in collective terms, but there stands to be several key battles which will have the biggest influence on proceedings.
1. Owen Farrell vs. Brock James
Saracens can walk into Saturday's Clermont clash confident that their Premiership placement at the top of the standings isn't under threat, and a large part of that is thanks to the extensively good form of Owen Farrell.
In Brock James, the Sarries No. 10 doesn't come up against a specialist of the position like some of those competing in the contest's other semi-final between Leinster and Toulon.
At Twickenham, Farrell is under some pressure to deliver with a home crowd behind him, likely to assess what James is bringing to the table before diverting toward any set-in-stone tactics of his own.
Farrell's running presence will be something his opposite number will need to keep an eye on, while the Saracens playmaker must also be careful of his kicking to a potentially decimating Clermont back three.
2. Steve Borthwick vs. Nathan Hines
Steve Borthwick was recently crowned the most experienced Premiership player ever after making his 263rd league appearance against Northampton Saints a fortnight ago.
Opposite him this Saturday will be a second-row figure with not so much to his name in terms of accolades, but 37-year-old Nathan Hines will be just as seasoned in playing experience.
The pair of locks are showing that age is only a restraint on one's prestige as long as you allow it to be and are set to play pivotal roles for their respective packs this weekend.
The line-out battle is likely to be impacted by which of these two can gain an edge at the set piece, but Hines will be hoping the addition of Jamie Cudmore alongside him can trump Borthwick's partnership with Mouritz Botha.
3. Brad Barritt vs. Wesley Fofana
According to Sky Sports, Aurelien Rougerie is still listed as a doubt for this weekend's trip to London, meaning Benson Stanley could be drafted in at 13 should he be absent for the fixture.
Not that Stanley doesn't bring a raft of creative properties in his own right, but Wesley Fofana will be the man in the frame to step up his individual tendency for brilliance if his normal centre partner is missing.
Brad Barritt, a fine defensive force when at the peak of his game, will be seeking to quell that influence, restraining one particularly vital part of Clermont's back-line synchronisation.
A worry for Barritt is that focusing on his defensive responsibilities may mean the attacking duties take a back seat without notice, and it's essential that Saracens' No. 12 remain vigilant in that respect.
4. Chris Ashton vs. Napolioni Nalaga
Looking at a back-three cast of Lee Byrne, Napolioni Nalaga and either Sitiveni Sivivatu, Noa Nakaitaci or Julien Malzieu is enough to make any European defence feel some degree of fear, and Saturday will lead Saracens into their sights.
In an attacking sense, Saracens' blend of Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and David Strettle can be just as testing in an attacking sense, but there's some question as to whether the English trio pose as much of a defensive stature as their counterparts.
The Pacific Island contingent within Clermont's ranks certainly boast tremendous physical traits and would certainly appear to have the better chances if these duels were decided on that basis.
However, Ashton may feel his chances of beating Nalaga in a technical battle down his right wing can be considered capable of tipping the balance in his favour.
5. Billy Vunipola vs. Gerhard Vosloo
Bringing Billy Vunipola back from the injury he suffered during the Six Nations so early may have been a topic of controversy at Allianz Park, but the youngster is showing that faith has been well-placed.
And should he hold down his spot on the blindside, it will be Gerhard Vosloo, newly returned to fitness himself, who lines up on the other side of the pitch.
Clermont may choose to field either Vosloo or Julien Bonnaire at No. 8 in order to deal with injuries among their pack, but the South African is sure to come up against the mobile Vunipola in the loose, regardless of position.
Kicking returns notwithstanding, the two monoliths will be an intriguing viewing point around the fringes of the ruck, and their work in recovering lost ball promises to make yet more of their titanic head-to-head.