Dave Strettle knows his Clermont Auvergne team still face one of the biggest challenges in World rugby when they tackle injury hit Saracens, the double European Champions Cup winners in Sunday’s clash at Allianz Park.
Sarries are missing a host of injured players, including Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Liam Williams, Schalk Brits, Michael Rhodes and Duncan Taylor, who helped establish the former English champions as the best club team in the Northern Hemisphere.
Despite those damaged stars, Strettle, who quit Sarries to join the reigning French Top 14 champions in 2015 having helped them win two Premiership titles in his five seasons, expects another severe examination from his former team mates who defeated Clermont 28-17 in last season’s Champions Cup final in Murrayfield. That victory confirmed Sarries position as the benchmark for every other European club but now they have been undermined by injuries.
However, Strettle knows that Clermont’s own injury problems have removed half backs Camille Lopez and Greig Laidlaw -along with replacement Luke McAlister who broke his hand last weekend- from the equation and neither team can claim a significant advantage. Not even the knowledge that Sarries have lost five matches in a row – three in the Premiership – gives the French side a significant edge as they are currently in a lowly eighth place in the Top 14 table. Sarries are also unbeaten in 20 games in the Champions Cup, winning 19 and drawing once, since their last defeat which came at the hands of Clermont in the 2014/15 semi-final in Saint Etienne.
Strettle, the 14 cap England wing, is out of contract at the end of this season and could return to the Premiership, and said; “Everyone knows Sarries are a great team and when you play against them then you respect them even more. They put you under real pressure and then control the tempo of the game and the field positions so well it’s a case of having to deal with that while trying to put your own mark on the game. What Sarries do really well is stop you playing rugby and even if you have the potential we have at the club, it is pointless unless you can actually get hold of the ball.
“ It is never an easy time to play Sarries at Allianz Park, although like a number of teams they have had a number of injuries but they have such a good squad and we know it is going to be a tough game.
“They will be hurting massively after recent results and any time there is a loss it isn’t taken well at the club. Whoever is going to play against us is going to make it tough and we have had problems at half back and it is hard when you lose players in key positions. It does affect the team but we have some great players at Clermont who can perform in different positions and it is a case of making sure everyone around them helps when they go into those other roles. That is what we have been working on in the last couple of weeks.
“ I have some offers on the table and having played at some great clubs like Clermont, Sarries and Harlequins and you want to make sure you have another challenge to enjoy – that is the main thing. Possibly it could be back in the Premiership and I have had a great time in France and there are still things I would like to do and I would never say no to going back to the Premiership. With Clermont there is such a talented group of players they will always be in contention.”