Saracens are ready for the big occasion, says boss Mark McCall
Saracens boss Mark McCall has backed his players to thrive amid the high-octane atmosphere of a European Champions Cup clash against fellow tournament heavyweights Toulon.
McCall's men begin their European title defence at Stade Felix-Mayol on Saturday against the three-time champions.
And although it is only the opening game across six rounds of group action, the showdown could still go some way towards deciding which team tops the group and guarantees a quarter-final place.
"What happened last year doesn't come into it," said McCall, who saw Saracens lift the trophy by beating French challengers Racing 92 in Lyon.
"But I do think we have a group who love these occasions, and it brings the best out of them. They won't be intimidated by it - they will thrive on it.
"Last Sunday (Saracens beat Aviva Premiership rivals Wasps 30-14) was good preparation for it. Certain parts of our game are in good shape. Our defence was magnificent, and it has been all season.
"And we have dominated teams territorially, and it will be important against Toulon to put them in difficult positions and situations that they don't get every week in the Top 14."
Fly-half Owen Farrell makes his first appearance of the season for Saracens after recovering from back and hip trouble, while Alex Goode features at full-back and a powerful pack includes the likes of Maro Itoje, Schalk Burger and Billy Vunipola.
Saracens skipper Brad Barritt added: "It promises to be an amazing atmosphere, as you get with every home Toulon game.
"They are going to have a packed ground with a passionate fan-base, and it's something that we have really enjoyed over the last few seasons, going to these home fortresses and doing our best to go there and win.
"We know this season is a new chapter, and we know that we have to work doubly hard to get anywhere near the achievements of last season."
Toulon have already lost three games in the French Top 14 this term, but their European Cup pedigree is of the highest calibre, having recorded a tournament hat-trick between 2013 and 2015.
"On Saturday, we want victory at any price. It will not be easy, but we will do our best," Toulon head coach Diego Dominguez said.
"The challenge is high, and my players will be highly motivated. They are aware of the importance of this game.
"Saracens have really developed as a team over the last two years. They attack well, they defend well, they have speed and good finishers. They have all the things that the big teams have."
Northampton, still without injured England skipper Dylan Hartley, begin their Champions Cup campaign against Franklin's Gardens visitors Montpellier on Saturday in a tough group that also includes Leinster and Castres.
"I think the Champions Cup is a fantastic opportunity to test yourself against the best," Saints captain Tom Wood said.
"We've enjoyed some great occasions in Europe, and there seems to be that little bit extra about it - the atmosphere, the buzz. European rugby can be a chance to springboard your season, and it's certainly worked that way for us in the past.
"We recognise that we've got some very good teams in our way, but we want to be competing, we want to qualify from our group and we want to go as far as we possibly can."
Wasps, meanwhile, should encounter few problems against Italian minnows Zebre at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday, where the home side hand a first start to former Bath centre Kyle Eastmond, and Frank Halai lines up on the wing instead of an injured Christian Wade.
"We did well last season and probably exceeded everyone's expectations by qualifying from the dreaded 'pool of death' and progressing to the semi-final," Wasps rugby director Dai Young said.
"However, last year is last year. It counts for nothing this year. We must start afresh and put all our focus on trying to qualify from the group."
Sale Sharks are also in action on Saturday, tackling the Scarlets in Llanelli, while Leinster host Castres and Connacht entertain Toulouse. Sunday's Champions Cup schedule sees a mouthwatering clash in Devon between Exeter and Clermont Auvergne, with Ulster travelling to face Bordeaux-Begles and Munster visiting Racing 92 in Paris.