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Mallinder talks up Clermont's class

Published 03/04/2015

Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder
Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder

Northampton boss Jim Mallinder believes the Saints will face a team with "no weaknesses" when they go into European Champions Cup quarter-final combat on Saturday.

The Aviva Premiership title holders head to Stade Marcel Michelin, where opponents Clermont Auvergne boast a 22-game unbeaten European home record and whose scalps this season include Saracens and Munster.

Saints' degree of difficulty is increased by the absence of Wales wing and try machine George North, who will not play again this month on medical advice after being knocked out during last Friday's league win against Wasps.

But while Mallinder knows exactly how tough a task awaits, Northampton's pedigree cannot be overlooked. In the last two seasons, they have beaten fellow former European champions Leinster and Ulster away from home.

"I think the player with character and something about them enjoys this sort of test of a competitive nature," he said.

"It is not just taking on a fantastic team of mainly international players - they have got a squad full of international players. They lose a couple of players, and another international steps in.

"They have got no weaknesses there, so it is a massive test in terms of the team we are playing, but also the club that we are playing.

"We have seen the statistics in the quarter-finals, when one of the four away teams normally wins. We know we have got a chance that we could be one of those four this weekend.

"We are going to go there and give it the best shot we can."

Jamie Elliott takes North's place on the wing, while two other changes from the Wasps game see starts for England centre Luther Burrell and Sam Dickinson, who packs down in the back-row alongside Tom Wood and Calum Clark.

Bath will bid to reach their first top-flight European semi-final for nine years on Saturday, reinforced by returning England internationals Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, George Ford and Dave Attwood for an Aviva Stadium appointment with Leinster, while fit-again Wales prop Paul James also starts, with centre Sam Burgess on bench duty.

Bath did it the hard way in terms of securing a last-eight place, recovering from losing their opening two group games to reel off successive wins against Montpellier (home and away), Toulouse and Glasgow.

"No-one plays like us in the Premiership," Bath head coach Mike Ford said.

"Even if Leinster watch a lot of how we have played in previous games, we are a decision-making team and we thrive off what is in front of us. It makes us unique.

"We want to play the Bath way, which is to unload things quickly, but unless we get our fundamentals in place we are not going to win."

Sunday's Champions Cup action takes place in France, where Saracens face a lunchtime clash in Paris against quarter-final top seeds Racing Metro, followed by Wasps meeting Toulon, the star-studded French Top 14 leaders seeking a European title hat-trick this term.

Saracens will be without injured captain Alastair Hargreaves, so scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth takes over as skipper, but in-form wings Chris Ashton and David Strettle start, together with England number eight Billy Vunipola.

"We are in very good spirits at the moment," Saracens rugby director Mark McCall said. "To have won our last five (games) in a row is very pleasing.

"We have watched Racing a lot over the last week, especially their win against Northampton at Franklin's Gardens, and they were very good that day.

"They have got superb half-backs and a big pack, but we have been buoyed by our recent results."

England flanker James Haskell and Italy centre Andrea Masi are back in action for Wasps, but wings Christian Wade and Sailosi Tagicakibau are sidelined by hamstring injuries - Will Helu and Tom Varndell start - with Guy Thompson replacing suspended number eight Nathan Hughes.

"There are not many teams who play Toulon who don't start as underdogs," Wasps rugby director Dai Young said.

"They continue to attract the very best players in the world to their club, and they have become used to winning the biggest of competitions.

"We know we are going to have to be a little bit more adventurous than if we were playing at home, and we know that if we allow them to control the speed and tempo of the game, they will be very hard to stop.

"We need to find a way to unsettle them, and we are confident we can cause them problems."

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