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David Strettle, Clermont looking to scale final hurdle in Champions Cup

Strettle was part of the Clermont side that lost to his former side Saracens in last season's Champions Cup final. David Rogers/Getty Images

It is unlikely that David Strettle will be knocking on doors in Hendon when he returns to Saracens with Clermont Sunday. Had he done so following either of his two Aviva Premiership-winning campaigns with the north London club, though, the winger doubts it would have elicited much excitement.

Strettle, 34, arrives back at Allianz Park a Top 14 winner having played a vital role as Clermont wrapped up a long-awaited second French title in June following a run of near misses. That success also gave the former England wing a glimpse into how closely the town of Clermont-Ferrand holds the club to its collective heart.

"When I won the league at Saracens it was very much an internal joy," Strettle said. "You have some diehard Saracens fans, but I could have gone round and knocked on the doors in Barnet or north London and said 'oh, Saracens have just won the league' and they'd have been like 'oh, great I didn't realise that'. Whereas in Clermont it's the lifeblood of the city.

"We got back and there were 60,000 people waiting in the main square. Just to be part of that, to see that every car has got the blue and yellow ribbons and the stickers on and all the kids and all the grandmas are wearing the shirt and suddenly you realise that although you do just have a day job in a sense -- you go to a club, you train and you play on the weekend -- you do actually see the knock-on effect on the fans and the happiness it brings."

He added: "You can actually see the emotional effect, not just on the team but on the town, on the whole city. Having won the league obviously with Saracens and Clermont now, I have to say that the overall experience with Clermont was something that I'll never forget."

Sunday's clash is a repeat of last season's Champions Cup final, and is finely poised. The first of back-to-back games arrives with the continental heavyweights separated by just a single point atop Pool 2 -- the next two weekends should prove decisive in settling who progresses to the knockout rounds.

Clermont have suffered something of a title hangover this season, with Franck Azema's men languishing at ninth in the Top 14 table and with a lengthening injury list. "We've not been good enough," was Strettle's honest appraisal but his former employers are in a rut themselves, having stumbled into this pivotal double header on the back of five successive defeats in all competitions.

And having exorcised their title demons domestically, there is a feeling in Clermont that the Champions Cup must now be conquered. The French champions have reached three European Cup finals in the last five years, but each time victory has proved beyond them.

"I remember going into the different shops and into the square after we'd won it [the Top 14 title] and everyone was already saying 'next year, Europe, next year, Europe'," Strettle said. "The fans are so passionate. It's the top honour in club rugby and I don't think the Auvergne will be happy until that trophy comes back with Clermont."

If that was achieved then the celebrations might even eclipse those that followed their Top 14 success. "The Stade Michelin is an unbelievable place to play and the atmosphere I personally believe is second to none in European rugby. But when it's European Cup games it even goes up a notch, so you can see what it means to the club the European Cup," Strettle said.

"I think you can sense that. With the lads as well, there's a bit more of a buzz around the club when it's European Cup games."

Clermont have been unlucky in their European endeavours in that they have run into the two preeminent dynasty of the past decade in those three finals -- Saracens and Toulon. But as they make the trip to north London Strettle warns that it is imperative his teammates are not burdened by their past experiences.

"If you start to carry the failures of teams gone by you've got such a weight on your shoulders," he explained. "You've just got to learn from what's happened, from what you've experienced and try to improve every year. I think that's what Saracens have done well. I think if you look at teams that have gone on to win the European Cup, it's the teams that have been there or thereabouts and gradually got better year on year.

"I think possibly Clermont haven't done that because they've always been worried about what's gone on. I try to look at it a different way. I try to look at the fact that we've been to so many finals shows you how good a team we are consistently. It's just a case of looking at it a different way."

Strettle believes that it is easier for English players to do that than their Gallic counterparts as they are able to "separate the emotion and see it as a job to be done." And he is under no illusion how big the task facing his side will be come Sunday as they look to wrestle control of Pool 2 away from their hosts.

"It's a massive game obviously for Saracens because they don't want to lose that [home] advantage -- and for Clermont because we want to take that advantage away," he said. "But the boys having played against Sarries for a while now I think can actually respect how good a team they are and it won't be a case of the guys not knowing what's coming. It's going to be intense, it's going to be international-level intensity because if you look at the calibre of players they've got.

"But then if you look at the calibre of players we've got we can match that. We know it's going to be a very tough game and we need to show the glimpse of form that we have done this year, but we need to do it for 80 minutes."