Ulster must keep discipline to beat Stade
Pound for pound, they're probably the best club side in Europe. Whereas Ulster's previous French victims, Toulouse, were perhaps a great side going downhill, Stade Francais are an upwardly mobile side on the cusp of greatness, as that seismic 39-3 win over Toulouse in last year's French championship semi-final underlined.
But they're still only 15 men with two arms and two legs each, just like Ulster. They're human and they are, of course, French (i.e., poor travellers), as they showed in that hard-earned 28-17 win over Leinster in Donnybrook (not to mention the pool defeat in Llanelli). Occasionally, they can be almost superhuman, as they demonstrated in the 56-31 home win over Leinster (not to mention the 71-14 quarter-final rout of Pontypridd).
At least Ulster have a helpful inside track, with both videos of the Leinster games being made available to coach Harry Williams by his counterpart Mike Ruddock. In fact, Ruddock is surprisingly chipper about Ulster's prospects.
"I think Ulster can beat 'em. For a start I think the weather will favour Ulster. Stade Francais are at their best on a hard, dry ground - as they showed against Pontypridd and having been out there in Paris and seen how powerful they are - with their running game.
"So I think the weather will be in their (Ulster's) favour and the confidence from having beaten French sides already will help Ulster as will the home ground effect. So it's the right time of year and the right situation and the right time to catch them. I think they can do it.
"Discipline is the key factor," added Ruddock. "In the last 15 minutes of our game (at Donnybrook) we started to lose our discipline whereas all through the game, up until then, Stade Francais were losing theirs. And we started giving penalties away to allow them run at us. So if Ulster are passionate with their rugby, as we know they will be, yet disciplined, I'm sure they can make it happen."
The Leinster team manager Jim Glennon concurred with Ruddock, and underlined the importance of climate and home advantage, based on both Leinster's meetings with Stade Francais and the traditional virtues of the two rugby playing countries.
Exposure to the French clubs in this competition diminishes one's admiration for their innate running skills and one senses Glennon is less a fan than he used to be. Angus McKeen was provoked into conceding a couple of costly penalties in that Donnybrook outing and Glennon didn't attend the post-match press conference as he was setting the wheels in motion for an abortive citing of the Stade loose-head Serge Simon, whereas after the second confrontation McKeen was suspended for use of the boot.
"I thought at Donnybrook they were a typical French side playing over here in the European Cup. A very good side, but relatively easily rattled and, unfortunately, we didn't get the protection we should have got from the referee. They resorted to their usual tactics when in trouble and we ended up losing our discipline because we got no help from the referee."
IN any event, Glennon has no doubt that Ulster can win and makes no apologies for Irish sides being suited to the current inclement weather. "That's Irish weather. That's the way we play the game. When we go to France, we play them in French weather. It's even-steven. They are particularly good with a dry ball because that's the weather conditions in which they learned the game.
"We're better than them in wintry conditions because they're the weather conditions in which we play the game much more often than they do. There's nothing to be ashamed of in that."
That said, Glennon concedes that Stade Francais are an exceptional side and when asked what makes them so, says, unhesitatingly: "Power and pace. They have the ability to do things at a tremendous pace and they have a great ability to vary the pace of the game in the crucial areas of the pitch. And Senor Dominguez is different class."
Few brickbats accompany the inevitable bouquets when this name comes up in conversation. Whatever the multi-millionaire benefactor of Stade, Max Guazzini, pays Senor Dominguez, he's worth it. Ominously, the 32year-old, 45-times capped, Argentinian-born Italian seems to age like vintage wine and has been a regular thorn in Irish sides.
"He is a class act. Not that the Ulster rugby public need any encouragement to go to Ravenhill, but when they do they'll see an absolute master craftsman at work. He invariably takes the right option - tremendous vision - and has an absolutely beautiful pair of hands to go with a metronomic boot. I think he kicked eight out of eight against us in Paris and I think he hit four out of five against us in Donnybrook."
A second, fairly compelling, reason then for Ulster to keep a tight hold on their discipline.