The result of the European Champions Cup final will hinge on Saracens' ability to stifle and limit Racing 92 flyhalf Dan Carter, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Carter will have an influence on the decider in Lyon on Saturday. The decorated New Zealander has been in this situation before with the Crusaders and the All Blacks, and there can be no question of his experience and composure. On the basis of his commanding performances for Racing 92 this past season, the 34-year-old still has the physical attributes to succeed in a championship match.
The question is not if Carter will influence the championship game at the Grande Stade de Lyon. It's to what degree. Indeed, this much has already been stated by Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.
Saracens cannot hope to shut Carter down completely. They can, however, limit the great player's influence.
Earlier this week, McCall said that this starts with the Saracens pack winning the set-piece battle as well as the fight at the gainline. The pressure will then be transferred to the Racing 92 halfbacks, Maxime Machenaud and Carter himself, who will have less time to execute.
While Saracens flyhalf Owen Farrell is not in the same class as Carter, he will be a factor behind a winning pack. Once a forward platform has been laid, Farrell will need to capitalise for his side.
Big finals are usually dominated by defence, and scoring opportunities are few and far between. If Saracens and Farrell have a chance this Saturday, they must make it count. One can be sure that Carter will make the most of every opportunity for Racing 92 at the other end of the park.
Regardless of who triumphs, the Champions Cup will have a new winner. After an outstanding season, Saracens will be determined to finish with the trophy. They may also view this contest as an opportunity to atone for their 23-6 loss to Toulon in the 2013-14 final in Cardiff.
Racing 92 will not be short on motivation either. Toulon won the previous three instalments of the Champions Cup, and so a win for Racing 92 this weekend will mark a fourth-straight title for French club rugby.
For Carter, there is a chance to join an elite winners' club. As it stands, Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Brad Thorn and Ali Williams are the only players to have won a World Cup, a Rugby Championship, a Super Rugby competition, and a Champions Cup tournament.
Saracens will be looking to break France's hold on European club rugby's premier title. They will aiming to end an era of French and Irish dominance. This Saturday, Saracens could become the first English side to lift the trophy in nine years.
However, one begins to understand the enormity of their task taking into account the match on Saturday will be sold out. One would expect the majority of the 59,000 fans crammed into the Grande Stade de Lyon to be French.
No English team has beaten a French side in a European Cup final since Wasps edged Toulouse 27-20 at Twickenham in 2003-04. One needs to go even further back to the 2000-01 season for the last English triumph on French soil (Leicester beat Stade Français 34-30 at the Parc de Princes).
While Saracens are the form side in this year's tournament, 'home' advantage will boost Racing 92 to new levels of competency. The final promises to be a tight contest, a contest that may be decided by one score.
Racing 92 – 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Johan Goosen, 12 Alexandre Dumoulin, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Francois van der Merwe, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (c), 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Subs: 16 Virgile Lacombe, 17 Khatchik Vartanov, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Manuel Carizza, 20 Antonie Claassen, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Henry Chavancy.
Saracens – 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Marcelo Bosch.
Photo: Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images