(Photo: Michael Steele / Getty Images)
By David Barnes
The name of Dimitri Yachvili is one that provoked apprehension, if not fear, in the ranks of a generation of England rugby players. Largely because, starring in his role of scrum-half, he won two Grand Slams with France, beating England three times in a row along the way.
Yachvili also won two French championships with Biarritz and featured in two European summits for the same club.
One suspects, though, that the triple victory over England in the Six Nations, one of them at Twickenham, features among his warmest recollections.
Notably because he scored 53 of France’s aggregate of 73 points from 2004-06, helping himself to all 18 on English soil.
Now, with the Champions Cup underway this weekend, Yachvili has another treble on his mind, the one that dangles temptingly before Saracens, who kick off their campaign at Northampton today.
It is his job these days to analyse the competition for the French TV channel broadcasting the games.
And, whereas he once consistently destroyed English hopes, he now comforts them with an unconditional verdict.
Yachvili says: “I do not see anyone who can beat Saracens. We know how difficult it is to pull off an historic treble, which would allow them to join Toulon, but I think they have everything to do it.
“Their superiority is, firstly, tactical. They are capable of having a plan A, plan B and, if needs be, a plan C. Which allows them to adapt to all conditions and to all opponents.
“I remember their final against Racing at Lyon last year. It was pouring down and I thought that would be to Racing’s advantage with their big, tough forwards.
“Turned out that was exactly where Saracens beat them in the end, proof they can perform in different styles of play.”
For an insider’s view of Saracens, Yachvili turned to their Argentine centre Marcelo Bosch, his former Biarritz team-mate.
He adds: “Marcelo told me that they mastered every detail by the millimetre. There are no unforeseen situations in their game. They are very close to international level.”
And, when it comes to their individuals, Yachvili has only admiration, saying: “Jamie George is a fabulous hooker, Mario Itoje, in spite of his youth, plays like a man of 30 with 120 caps.
“Brad Barritt is incredible as an exemplary captain. He makes very few passes, but he tackles like two men. His idea of sacrifice justifies Mark McCall’s decision to make him captain even though his profile does not represent his team’s game.”
Yachvili feels that the talent of Richard Wigglesworth in the position he once occupied to such dynamic effect, himself, tends to be overshadowed by the presence of Owen Farrell.
He explains: “The role of Wigglesworth is essential to Saracens’ game. Especially in the quality of his kicking. Those box kicks over the heads of the rucks are of incredible precision. Which is why Saracens win half of those kicks back, so making 20 metres without any great effort.”
Yachvili is not alone in his analysis. It is backed by the great majority of Top 14 clubs, according to a poll carried out by French rugby bible Midi Olympique.
Montpellier, though, do still foster hopes of adding the Champions Cup to the European Challenge Cup they won last year by beating Harlequins.
Yachvili considers: “Montpellier have the measure with internationals in all positions and Vern Cotter.
“Montpellier have the weapons to do well with the partnership of Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden.”
Toulon boss Fabien Galthie, who once rivalled Yachvili as France scrum-half, is another to have sought insider information. He asked Chris Ashton, his former Saracens winger, for his idea what made them tick.
Galthie says: “Chris explained that, when you are a Saracen, you know by heart what you have to do.
“They are a step ahead in everything they put in place. They give the impression of being pragmatic in search of a game less spectacular than effective.
“In reality, they are very quick in getting back into position because they have a very formal structure. That is their strength and the fruit of many years’ work”.
Top 14 champions Clermont, despite a disappointing start to the defence of their title, have contested three of the last five elite European finals.
Beyond their visit to Ospreys today Saracens lie in wait and Yachvili, though reluctant to write off their chances of winning the trophy, says: “They should be capable of posing problems, but we have seen how they were left behind by Saracens’ speed of execution last time.”
In other words, for Yachvili, there is only one winner.
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