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

Dylan Hartley's Saints saw off Clermont at Franklin's Gardens in January (picture: Dave Ikin)
Dylan Hartley's Saints saw off Clermont at Franklin's Gardens in January (picture: Dave Ikin)

Fixture: Northampton Saints v Clermont Auvergne

Competition: Challenge Cup

Venue: Franklin's Gardens, Northampton

Date and kick-off time: Saturday, October 13, 2018, 3pm

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

Saints: Mallinder; Tuala, Kellaway, Francis, Collins; Biggar, Reinach; Waller (cc), Hartley (cc), Painter; Ribbans, Barrow; Haskell, Ludlam, Harrison.

Replacements: Haywood, van Wyk, Franks, Moon, Gibson, Mitchell, Grayson, Burrell.

Clermont Auvergne: Toeava; Nanai Williams, Penaud, Lamerat, Betham; Fernandez, Laidlaw; Falgoux, Kayser, Slimani; Timani, Vahaamahina; Iturria, Cancoriet, Lee (c).

Replacements: Ulugia, Kakabadze, Zirakashvili, van der Merwe, Yato, Parra, Lopez, Naqalevu.

Outs: Saints: Paul Hill (shoulder), Rory Hutchinson (knee), Toby Trinder (foot), Ken Pisi (shoulder), Heinrich Brüssow (concussion), Nafi Tuitavake (neck), Andy Symons (knee), Jamal Ford-Robinson (knee), Api Ratuniyarawa (ankle), Tom Emery (ankle), Courtney Lawes (back)

Most recent meeting: Saturday, January 13, 2018: Saints 34 Clermont Auvergne 21 (Champions Cup)

Tom's preview: When they dropped into the Challenge Cup, Saints could have been forgiven for looking forward to facing some easier European opponents.

But they have had no such luck when it comes to their opening game in their new surroundings as they have found themselves on a collision course with a familiar foe.

Saints have met Clermont Auvergne on five occasions in Europe's top tier competition - four times in the pool stages and once in a one-sided quarter-final loss at Stade Marcel Michelin.

But after finishing ninth in the Premiership last season, the black, green and gold would have felt sure they would not be meeting the French giants again this time round.

However, Clermont endured just as disappointing a season as Saints, ending their Top 14 travails in ninth.

And so here we are again, with Les Jaunards providing the opposition for Saints once again, with Saturday's Franklin's Gardens curtain-raiser a mouthwatering prospect.

It is especially enthralling considering the start Clermont, who have named an incredibly strong 23 for this weekend's game, have made to their league campaign.

They currently top the French standings, having won five of their opening seven matches as they look to quickly banish a below-par 2017/18 season.

Saints have not started so well, winning just twice in six Premiership matches as Chris Boyd's difficult rebuild continues.

A statement success would be a great way to lift spirits after last weekend's washout against Leicester Tigers at Twickenham.

And Saints would dearly love to replicate their stirring display back in January, when Clermont were conquered at the Gardens.

Back then, the black, green and gold were given little chance.

But they turned in one of their best performances of a stuttering season to slay the French giants on Northampton soil.

Though this is a new-look squad governed largely by a different group of coaches, they will be asked to show the same spirit that won them that Champions Cup clash.

It may only be the first Challenge Cup pool stage match, but there is little room for error in Europe.

Saints will target their home games as they face tricky trips to Clermont and Dragons as well as a December date at Romanian side Timisoara Saracens.

The first two fixtures, which see a game at Dragons follow the Clermont clash, are testing to say the least.

And with a flying start is so important, there would no better way to get off the ground than by beating the French league leaders.

But if Saints are to do that, they will need every ounce of skill and spirit they showed back in January.

And they will perhaps need even to surpass that showing against a team that clearly mean business at home and abroad this season.

Tom's prediction: Saints 15 Clermont Auvergne 22