Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Ulster must be fearless

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin

Ulster can react in one of two ways in attempting to deal with the threat posed by Stade Francais this weekend.

They can view it as a great opportunity to shine against a big name European club or they can cower in fear of being overwhelmed by opponents with an awesome reputation.

If any Ulster player requires encouragement in the countdown to Saturday afternoon’s Heineken Cup clash at Ravenhill — the first of two back-to-back meetings in the space of seven days — he could do worse than examine some of the facts rather than allowing himself to be intimidated by fiction a la Stade.

They are neither unbeatable nor invincible. They have flaws, not least their dislike of travel.

In their own domestic series, Top 14, their record to date this season is a 50-50 mix of success and failure; played 15, won six, lost six, drawn three. Currently they are seventh, with Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne, Racing Metro, Perpignan and Castres all ahead of them.

True, Stade beat Bayonne 34-10 last weekend, but that must be put in context. Bayonne are the second-bottom club in the Top 14.

The Stadistes’ record away from Stade Jean Bouin certainly is not impressive, particularly in the Heineken Cup. They tend to struggle on opposition soil and, as a result, have failed to progress beyond the pool stage in three of the past four seasons.

The exception to the norm was 2006/07 when they reached the quarter-finals, at which point they exited to Leicester Tigers having lost 21-20 at Welford Road.

Last season the French giants were grouped with Ulster, Scarlets and Harlequins in Pool 4.

Stade made a good start by winning 26-10 at Ravenhill — their only victory in five European Cup visits to the east Belfast venue — before beating Scarlets 37-15 at Stade Jean Bouin.

But typically, at that stage, the wheels came off the pink cart when, as is their bizarre wont, they moved out of their own compact stadium for their pre-Christmas Heineken Cup match against ’Quins, instead opting to host them at Stade de France.

From a financial viewpoint it paid dividends; a crowd of 76,500 saw the match. But not for the first time the move from basecamp backfired, for the Londoners spoiled the Parisians’ Christmas party by winning 15-10.

A week later, against the same opponents, Stade went down 19-17 at The Stoop and when next they took to the road in the competition they lost 31-17 to Scarlets in Llanelli. Another season of underachievement, then.

There can be no disputing Stade’s domestic pedigree; 13 French Championships confirm their status as a club of genuine quality with a bona fide history.

But the first five of those were achieved in the 1890s, with three more following in the first decade of the 20th century after which they went 90 years without winning another French title.

Finally they ended that embarrassingly barren run by winning their country’s League in 1998, which meant that when they came to Ravenhill for that never-to-be-forgotten European Cup semi-final against Ulster in January 1999, it was as French champions.

Ulster were supposed no-hopers that day, too, I recall.

Bernice Johnson Reagon once said: “Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyse you, they're supposed to help you discover who you are.”

By 3.30pm on Saturday, Ulster’s players and supporters should have a much better idea as to their identity.

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