Tom Vickers’ Clermont Auvergne v Northampton Saints preview

Calum Clark and Saints celebrated a stunning win at Leinster in December, 2013
Calum Clark and Saints celebrated a stunning win at Leinster in December, 2013

Fixture: Clermont Auvergne v Northampton Saints (Champions Cup quarter-final)

Date/kick-off time: Saturday, April 4, 5.45pm (BST)

Venue: Stade Marcel Michelin

Weather forecast: 12C, cloudy

Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)

Saints: Wilson; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, Elliott; Myler, Dickson; Corbisiero, Hartley (c), Ma’afu; Manoa, Lawes; Wood, Clark, Dickinson.

Replacements: Haywood, A Waller, Denman, Day, Fisher, Fotuali’i, Stephenson, Tuala.

Outs: Clermont Auvergne: Morgan Parra (knee), Camille Lopez (knee), Wesley Fofana (hamstring). Saints: Ben Foden (knee), George North (concussion).

Most recent meeting: November 4, 2001: Clermont Auvergne 51 Saints 17 (Heineken Cup)

Tom’s preview: When faced with the size of challenge that awaits Saints at Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday evening, you have to clutch at every straw you can.

And thankfully for Jim Mallinder’s men, they have plenty to grab hold of.

Because when they run out at one of rugby’s most imposing citadels this weekend - Clermont have won 22 consecutive games there and have not lost at home in European competition since 2008 - they can use memories as motivation.

Only two members of the squad that has travelled to Clermont, Dylan Hartley and Stephen Myler, were at San Sebastian in 2007.

But many were in Belfast in 2012.

And even more were in Dublin in 2013.

And it is those experiences, of the quarter-final win against Biarritz eight years ago, of the pool stage victory at Ulster and of the most memorable of turnarounds at Leinster just last season, that can give Saints the shot in the arm they need.

Because, make no mistake, they will need to conjure up every ounce of self-confidence they can muster.

Teams have gone to Clermont talking the talk before.

But none from further afield than France have walked the walk since Sale won there in the Heineken Cup pool stages seven years ago.

Saints have yet to have a crack, though.

And as they say - records are there to be broken.

Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood - two of Northampton’s leaders - have been quick to point out that this squad of players love a challenge.

And it is hard to argue with the group who used the ‘Why not us?’ mentality to push them all the way to the Aviva Premiership final in 2013.

Written off after a difficult spell during that season, they put up the banner emblazoned with those three words in the Saracens changing room.

And the previously impenetrable Allianz Park was penetrated after an exhilarating play-off semi-final display.

They were given no chance at Leinster later that year, after losing 40-7 at Franklin’s Gardens just seven days earlier.

But again they delivered when the odds were stacked against them.

Hartley recalled those occasions with great glee at this week’s media day.

And he was right to.

Saints need every shred of comfort they can get as they prepare for a physical battle against a side that are desperate not only to compete with their forward power, but to eviscerate it.

One French rugby expert described how Les Jaunards would come out with ‘wild’ fervour this weekend.

They will not let Saints breathe as they look to suffocate their English opponents early.

It worked against Leicester in last season’s quarter-final, with Tigers falling 16-0 behind before mounting a spirited recovery that fell just short.

Saints will know that they cannot afford to give Clermont that kind of head-start.

At Ulster, Saints scored first, with GJ van Velze crossing for a try that proved crucial in a 10-9 success.

At Saracens, they were home and hosed by half-time thanks to efforts from Jamie Elliott and Brian Mujati.

And at Leinster, too, Mallinder’s men took an early lead, with George North’s effort showing they meant business.

The same kind of fast start could be vital again this weekend.

Now it is about whether Saints can produce it to claim a win that would, perhaps, eclipse any that have gone before.

Tom’s prediction: Clermont Auvergne 25 Saints 18