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Sarries draw on Clermont humbling

Given their remarkable progress in recent years, it may seem odd this Saracens side's defining moment is perhaps one of their heaviest and most humbling defeats.

Two years ago almost to the day, the Men in Black were outmuscled and outplayed by a ruthless Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

The scoreline, 22-3, was not so humiliating but the gulf in class was such that nothing at Saracens has been quite the same since.

Stronger, faster, fitter were the maxims taken away from that afternoon at Vicarage Road and on Saturday, Mark McCall's men have the chance to test the fruits of their labours when they face Clermont again, this time in the competition's semi-finals at Twickenham.

"We would hold our hands up and say that day, which was just over two years ago now, was a little bit men against boys," McCall said.

"We felt we were playing with one hand tied behind our back a little bit - we were a bit lightweight to be honest.

"We changed a lot after that, changed the way we went about things in the strengthening and conditioning department because we were fighting against people who were more powerful, more explosive than us."

Power has been recruited, with the likes of James Johnston and Billy Vunipola just two names added to the Sarries forward line, while former Ireland performance director Philip Morrow was installed to oversee a physical overhaul of the entire playing squad.

McCall describes Morrow as "the best signing made at the club" and points to flanker Will Fraser, who bulked up from 99kg to 108kg, as an example of improvements across the board.

Three consecutive years in the Heineken Cup knock-out stages mean Sarries' reunion with Clermont is far from a definitive barometer of their progress since 2012. But it does carry added poignancy.

McCall believes his players are more adept at handling the big occasions these days and insists they are ready to go one step further than last year's semi, when they were beaten by eventual champions Toulon.

"To be part of the same four teams who were in the semi-finals last year is good and it's a sign of where we are as a club, but we think we can go one better this year," McCall said.

"There's a real genuine belief that we're in good form, we're a better team than we were 12 months ago and our game has evolved."

He added: "This group has been together for five years.

"They've played together a lot and have been through a lot of experiences together on the field during that time - highs, lows, setbacks, triumphs.

"I think we're as ready as we've ever been to meet a challenge like this."

As well as their advance in European competition, Saracens are currently nine points clear at the top of the Aviva Premiership with a home semi-final already guaranteed.

There was a time when the club were happy just to be in the mix when trophies were handed out at the end of the season but McCall says those days are over.

"Just to get through to the semi-finals isn't enough for this group now, we need to kick on and win something," he said.

"We all want to win trophies and we know how difficult it is to win trophies.

"Clermont have been in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for seven years but have never won it.

"You would have thought they had the best squad and the best team in Europe for a long time but they've only won it once.

"We know how difficult it is to win things but we've got ourselves into a cracking situation and we need to take advantage of it this time around."


From Belfast Telegraph