Paul Warwick knows his Stade Francais team are in the last-chance saloon against Leinster
Inconsistency has dogged the French side all season
Leinster may have to expect thunder and lightning when Stade Francais roll into the RDS. But as much as the Parisians would like it that Joe Schmidt believe they have the aristocratic rugby gods on their side, a Top 14 season shows they have been rarely blinding and the thunderbolts unreliable.
The first law of team sport is that the entire squad cannot be stars, that there is only one Chabal, O’Driscoll or Carter and in rugby particularly, even Paul O’Connell finds it a strain to make dogging it out in the secondrow a glamorous occupation.
As former Munster back Paul Warwick sees it, French attitude brings its own unique tastes, some times confusing, occasionally precious and often dangerous. But arriving as the 11th team out of 14 in the French Championship, 12 wins from 25 games played and Biarritz’s recent 52-17 win over them hanging like a medal of dishonour and what is there to be scared of? Just one thing, actually. The French don’t see it like that at all.
‘Farewell game ’
“That result with Biarritz doesn’t matter” explains Warwick. “The side that was put out, there were guys leaving and ‘espoirs,’ a lot of academy guys and guys that didn’t have much game time this year. It was a kind of a farewell game for them. I don’t think you’ll see anyone who started that game will start against Leinster.
“Leinster has the bones of that team together for quite some time and they know each other inside out. There’s a higher turnover of players in French clubs and we are no different to that. Throughout we have probably been a team of stars rather than a star team but things have slowly been changing for us. You just don’t know what you are going to get on the night unfortunately. That’s one of the drawbacks.
“The rugby is probably less structured, less organised but . . . it’s just different and you can’t say one way is better than the other.”
Warwick has been in Paris for two years and is heading to Worcester for next season. At 32-years-old he’s played 48 times and is cheerfully looking towards some twilight years in Anglo-rugby, less swashbuckling and off-the-cuff stuff, more procedure. “Yeah it’s been . . . eh . . . interesting,” he says. “A different culture, a bit of a shock to the system . . . really looking forward to the move back to England, a bit more structure and things like that.”
Just what Jonny Sexton will make of the pouts, shrugs and solo runs with Racing Metro will be interesting. But therein lies the strength and the weakness of Stade. Schmidt can expect a traditional forward battle for position and possession but just what will happen when the ball goes back is less formulaic. They are predictably unpredictable.
What the French team also has on their side is last chance saloon desperation.
A win-or-bust opportunity to qualify for next season’s Heineken Cup and a new stadium waiting for the president to host teams next year in Europe’s premier event with Morne Steyne and Digby Ioane decorating the new roster. A few hours in the limelight will appeal to their sense of belonging and they are lethally capable of unselfish play.
This week they have worked hard to cement cohesion. “We’re certainly guilty on occasion of the individual coming before the collective,” confesses Warwick. “But the way we have been playing suits a lot of our higher profile players.
“It allows everyone work together within the game plan over the last six to eight weeks, whereas before there could have been a power struggle between individuals trying to be the star of the show. I think that s been put to bed.
“Friday is a way for us to put another disappointing Top 14 season behind us and still qualify for the Heineken Cup. They have invested a lot of money in a new stadium that will be ready for the start of next year and it’s very impressive. It could be the resurrection of Stade Francais. There’s a lot of emphasis on the last Heineken Cup chance and there are a lot of coaches and players leaving so it should make for a pretty special occasion.”
Biarritz had a swagger too a few weeks ago but Leinster’s was bigger and better. If Stade seek hope to find a way around the home side they have lost already but they may take succour from Glasgow’s recent near miss and see how Leinster can be stretched.
“I’d be wary of Leinster’s ability to be very clinical and their execution,” says Warwick cautiously.“But I don’t think they could predict what we are capable of or what we can do. With Leinster you know most aspects of their game rely on them getting on the front foot. I guess we rely on a bit of individual brilliance to create something and the guys around sniff out the opportunities.”