Mark McCall: Saracens must raise game to next level
Saracens boss Mark McCall has voiced his admiration for French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne ahead of this afternoon's European Champions Cup semi-final showdown in St Etienne.
Clermont stand between Saracens and the tournament's sole remaining English challengers reaching a second successive European final.
Saracens humbled Clermont 46-6 at the same knockout stage last season, scoring six tries during a Twickenham romp - but their opponents' quarter-final demolition of reigning Aviva Premiership champions Northampton just two weeks ago suggests former Ulster coach McCall's men are up against it.
"It's going to be a tough game for us, we understand that," rugby director McCall said.
"But we are going to try to make life very difficult for them and put them under some pressure.
"As a club, we admire them as much as anybody because they keep coming back for more.
"We always say we just want to give ourselves a chance of winning every competition, and they do that year in, year out. They respond to big setbacks remarkably well.
"They reinvent themselves, too. There is a different dynamic to their team this year to Vern Cotter's team - which was an outstanding team as well.
"Franck Azema (Cotter's successor as head coach) seems to have added something a little bit different in terms of their attack and defensively they are much more robust than they've ever been. They are a very good team."
England international Owen Farrell, as expected, returns to Saracens' matchday 23 for the first time since he suffered a knee injury three months ago.
Farrell will be on the bench, but injury sidelines skipper Alastair Hargreaves, so Jim Hamilton replaces him at lock and England centre Brad Barritt takes over captaincy duties. There is also a start in the back-row for exciting prospect Maro Itoje, while flanker Jacques Burger is back from suspension.
Today's encounter is a 41,000 sell-out, with the overwhelming majority of supporters heading 100 miles south from Clermont.
Saracens, though, possess enough European experience not to be troubled by such a partisan atmosphere and have already beaten Clermont during the competition's pool stage, defeating them 30-23 at Allianz Park last October before Clermont won the return fixture three months later.
"Every year, you try to push on and then you get comfortable, having gone up two or three per cent," McCall added. "As a club, we now want to push again. Our defence is back to where it was two years ago.
"One of the things I was nervous about when we focused on our attack a lot in the last two years was that our fundamentals, which are important to us, might get diluted along the way and we would become this wishy-washy club.
"I didn't want that to happen. There was evidence last year that we conceded too many tries. We didn't lead the Premiership in least tries conceded, and this year we are there or thereabouts.
"Our defence in the last few months has gone through the roof again, and that is very important."
For their part, Clermont are bidding to book a second European final appearance in three seasons, but they have yet to conquer the competition and land silverware.
"It's now or never," said Clermont's 36-year-old former France international flanker Julien Bonnaire. "I would like the colours of Clermont to hang from the trophy this season and to win it with my friends. The more we advance in a career, the less opportunities there are."