The Ulster team left the foyer of Radisson SAS Hotel for the nearby Stade Jean Bouin yesterday to the sound of Nat King Cole singing ‘Let It Snow’.
For sheer irony it takes some beating.
Unfortunately Ulster, too, suffered a beating at the hands of their hosts and they can have no complaints.
On the day, Stade played a very French-style of football — forward aggression laced with moments of creativity and flair.
The rivals’ Heineken Cup Pool Four clash, frozen out in Brussels the previous day, had been switched to the Parisians’ traditional home. So, Ulster found themselves in Port de St Cloud yesterday afternoon for the 11th meeting between the teams.
The pair were co-leaders with Edinburgh going into the match, all three teams locked on nine points, the Scots having played a game more.
The pitch was wet but it was free of snow, cleared by an army of pre-match sweepers and shovel-wielders including David Attoub, the prop cited for an alleged eye area assault on Stephen Ferris at Ravenhill. Community service?
Whether it was the bitterly cold, damp weather, the sense of anti-climax following the previous day’s frustration or the fact that it was the last Sunday before Christmas, the attendance was disappointing by Stade standards
With much at stake and against the backdrop of last weekend’s controversy, it deserved a bigger crowd.
Those who stayed away missed a hard-fought battle in which the hosts always had the edge after recovering from having gone 3-0 down to an Ian Humphreys penalty in the first minute.
They were level almost at once, Humphreys’ opposite number, Lionel Beauxis, putting down a
marker for the afternoon after his unimpressive place-kicking display in Belfast.
This time, though, Stade were up for it, a point underlined increasingly as the half unfolded. True, they survived a scare when Simon Danielli was called back — seemingly for a crossing offence — after a clever box kick by Isaac Boss deceived the home back three, but by and large they had the better of things.
Hooker Dimitri Szarzewdki gave them a lead they were never to lose when he drove over following a scrum close to the Ulster line, with Beauxis convering to make it 10-3 after 10 minutes.
Humphreys failed with his second penalty attempt, but moments later was on target with his third from an almost identical position. Ulster were back in it at 10-6 down.
But Stade were in no mood for any upsets from opponents who had lost on each of their previous four visits to this stadium.
Baeuxis underlined the point with his second penalty, that one at the start of the third quarter awarded for offside, followed by a third and a fourth on 21 and 30 minutes.
Trailing 19-6, Ulster were struggling to get a foothold. Both setpieces were under pressure, with the line-out once again a cause for concern.
Coach Brian McLaughlin, watching, as always, from behind the posts looked a worried man as the first half drew to a close. Nor was his mood lifted by the sight of a well-struck Humphreys drop goal rebounding back off an upright.
It was beginning to be one of those days.
For much of the third quarter, however, Ulster did enough to suggest that they might just make a scrap of it. This period was their best of the match by some distance as they got up to something approaching a head of steam, with No. 8 Chris Henry much involved in their better moments.
But it came to nothing and after 20 hard-fought but scoreless minutes it was Stade who struck again, Beauxis splitting the posts with his fifth penalty to make it 22-9.
The game was beginning to run away from the tiring and visibly demoralised visitors.
Five minutes later it got worse when replacement hooker Benjamin Kayser — a name linked with Munster — added the finish to a rolling maul from a line-out and, inevitably, Beauxis added the extras to leave Ulster trailing by a hopeless 29-9.
To their crerdit they emerged with something to show for a very hard and largely unrewarding afternoon when Andrew Trimble — back on the wing after Timoci Nagusa’s withdrawal and Ian Whiten’s introduction after 50 minutes — showed Mark Gasnier
a clean pair of heels in response to a long pass by Humphreys who kicked a glorious conversion.
But at 29-16 down and 10 minutes remaining, it was a match beyond redemption for Ulster.
ULSTER: Clinton Schifcofske; Timoci Nagusa, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace (captain), Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Isaac Boss; Tom Court, Nigel Brady, BJ Botha; Ed O’Donoghue, Dan Tuohy; Stephen Ferris, Willie Faloon, Chris Henry. Replacements: Andy Kyriacou, Bryan Young, Declan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Caldwell, David Pollock, Cillian Willis, Ian Whitten, Darren Cave
STADE FRANCAIS: Hugo Southwell; Julien Arias, Mathieu Bastereaud, Guillaume Bousses, Mark Gasnier; Lionel Beauxis, Noel Oelschig; Rodrigo Roncero (captain), Dimitri Szarzewdki, Sylvain Marconnet; Tom Palmer, Pascal Pape; Maauro Beramasco, Pierre Rabadan, Juan Mauel Leguizamon. Replacements: Benjamin Kayser, Rabah Slimani, Pedro Ledesma, Arnaud Marchois, James Haskell, Mirco Bergamasco, Geoffrey Messina, Ollie Phillips.