McCall confident despite Saracens' slump


Paris (AFP)

Director of rugby Mark McCall brushed aside Saracens' five-match losing streak as the European champions prepare to host last year's beaten finalists Clermont this weekend.

Top spot in European Champions Cup Pool 2 is at stake for the clash at the Allianz Park on Sunday after both sides won their opening two matches against Ospreys and Northampton.

Sarries have a one point lead having taken an extra bonus point but with only the group winners guaranteed a place in the quarter-finals, both sides know that taking something from the game is paramount.

And Sarries come into the match on the back of a shocking five-match losing run -- although two of those defeats came in the Anglo-Welsh Cup in which they fielded a second string outfit.

McCall, though, insists he's unworried.

"Because of the way that the season has finished for us the last three or four years, we've always had a difficult period in each of those seasons or we've had something to respond to," he said.

"In all of the years we have had to contend with things and have generally emerged from these things stronger.

"Our players are very experienced, they've been through all of the highs and lows along the way and have very strong relationships which become important at times like these."

Saracens will be without British and Irish Lions forward Maro Itoje, who suffered a broken jaw against Harlequins last weekend.

But Clermont are themselves in the midst of an injury crisis, particularly in the half-back positions, yet South African lock Flip van der Merwe says injuries won't play a part in deciding the outcome on Sunday.

"Saracens are a good team, they're not just about one guy. It's like us, we have a lot of injuries but we're building a team," said the 32-year-old Springbok international.

"They've got a very good work ethic and during the match they don't make many errors."

- 'Clinical' -

In last season's final, Saracens got off to a fast start and Clermont never recovered as the English side proved clinical in scoring three tries to two in a 28-17 success.

"It's always been their philosophy, they've built their game around that," said Clermont sporting director Franck Azema about Sarries' pressure game.

"The statistics show that they're clinical but that's helped by a deep-rooted culture and the desire to go beyond themselves and to perform on the pitch."

Despite their recent blip, with three straight league defeats, Saracens are still third in the English Premiership whereas Clermont have yet to win away from home in the French Top 14 and are down in ninth.

It means Sarries are clear favourites in London, but Van der Merwe insists it's not a lost cause for the French champions.

"It's really hard but not mission impossible. It's another match, another thing and we'll go there to try to win -- it's possible," he said.

Their Sunday clash is one of three this weekend between sides that won their opening two matches and are vying for sole possession of top spot.

On Saturday, three-time winners Toulon host 1998 champions Bath in a Pool 5 match between two sides domestically struggling for their best form.

Bath were hammered by English champions Exeter last weekend, when only a late try splurge gave the score a flattering gloss for the beaten side.

Toulon, meanwhile, ended a three-match losing run as they beat Lyon 39-11.

On Sunday, Exeter host Leinster at Sandy Park with top spot in Pool 3 up for grabs.

Pool 1 leaders La Rochelle, who have a 100 percent record, host second placed Wasps on Sunday while the only other unbeaten outfit Munster are at home to Leicester, who actually head Pool 4 thanks to bonus points.

Munster have a win and a draw but no bonus points while Leicester have picked up two bonuses despite losing to Racing 92 last time out.