Clermont Auvergne v Northampton Saints: Tom Vickers' big match preview

Clermont were too strong for Saints at Franklin's Gardens in October (picture: Kelly Cooper)
Clermont were too strong for Saints at Franklin's Gardens in October (picture: Kelly Cooper)

Fixture: Clermont Auvergne v Northampton Saints

Competition: Challenge Cup (Pool 1 - game five)

Venue: Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand

Date and kick-off time: Saturday, January 12, 2019, 8pm (GMT)

Television coverage: BT Sport 2

Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)

Saints: Tuala; Collins, Dingwall, Burrell, Naiyaravoro; Biggar, Mitchell; van Wyk, Fish, Painter; Ribbans, Ratuniyarawa; Lawes (c), Brüssow, Harrison.

Replacements: Marshall, Waller, Franks, Wood, Ludlam, Reinach, Grayson, Kellaway.

Outs: Saints: Ken Pisi (shoulder), Nafi Tuitavake (neck), Andy Symons (knee), Harry Mallinder (knee), James Haskell (ankle), James Craig (concussion), Tom Emery (shoulder), Mikey Haywood (knee), Dylan Hartley (knee), Piers Francis (shoulder), Dom Barrow (hamstring).

Most recent meeting: Saturday, October 13, 2018: Saints 20 Clermont Auvergne 41 (Challenge Cup)

Tom's preview: For fans, it is perhaps the best place to watch club rugby in Europe.

But for players, it can become the worst place to play.

Supporters of Clermont whip their side up into such a frenzy that the Stade Marcel Michelin becomes the cliched fortress.

And when a side saturated with power and skill is given the kind of backing the men in yellow and blue enjoy, games can turn into lengthy affairs for visiting sides.

Saints have sampled that on a few painful occasions, with the 80 minutes feeling like they last double or more.

Clermont get a grip of the opposition and slowly squeeze the life out of them before marching to victory and eliciting even more roars from their fervent faithful.

The drum beat grows louder as the home players stamp on the souls of the opposition.

It is some spectacle, extremely gladiatorial.

And if they forget to pack their A game, things can turn extremely savage extremely quickly for visiting teams.

Saints have felt the full force of Les Jaunards on the three occasions they have stepped out at Stade Marcel Michelin.

They were smashed 50-17 in November 2001, eviscerated 37-5 in a Champions Cup quarter-final in April 2015 and outgunned 26-7 in October 2017.

Their most recent visit was probably their most creditable as they did manage to compete but failed to take their chances when they came and were made to pay.

And Saints know that the only way to tame their hosts this weekend will be to land the punches when the guard comes down.

It doesn't come down often, but when it does, Saints must make it count.

They have been more than a match for England's best this season, pushing Saracens close and beating Exeter Chiefs a couple of weeks ago.

But they are well aware that a game at Clermont is a significant step up.

They will have to get on the right side of referee John Lacey, who took charge of that quarter-final defeat at Clermont three and a half years ago.

And they will have to somehow find a way to deal with the French physicality.

Clermont completely overwhelmed Saints at times at Franklin's Gardens back in October, storming to a 41-20 win in which they totally dominated at scrum time.

Saints will have to find a way of competing in that area, which is far easier said than done.

But if there is one thing about Saints over the years that still rings true, it is that they relish being underdogs.

No one expected them to beat Exeter in the final game of 2018, but they turned up and rode on the back of the Gardens roars to get the job done.

Those roars will be against them this weekend, but they must use them to inspire in the same way.

And if they can find a way to cope with the Clermont colosseum, you just never know.

It won't be easy, but occasions like these are what European rugby is all about.

And if Saints are to get back to playing in this sort of environment on a regular basis in years to come, they must start to prove they can deal with them now.

Tom's prediction: Clermont 26 Saints 10