Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Tyrone Howe: Ulster can be in the pink against Stade

I should have been born in France. Many years ago, out in Belfast on a Saturday night, wearing a shirt which had more than a hint of pink in it, a young lady came up to me. So far, so good, or so I thought.

Then, she went on to tell me that she had felt obliged to come across just to say that she was genuinely upset by my shirt which she considered the worst she had ever seen.

My initial reaction was that this was one of those classic “playing hard to get” scenarios which I had suddenly found myself in, but no, it rapidly dawned on me that she was actually being serious. In a weak attempt to cover up a bruised ego I consoled myself with the thought that it was far better to cause a negative reaction than no reaction at all. Nonetheless, I went home early.

Now, au contraire, these French boys from Paris have no such dilemmas — outrageously garish pink and an away strip, on display at Ravenhill this Saturday afternoon, which features baby blue lightning bolts. It might have taken over a decade to work it out but it has all become clear — I was simply ahead of my time!

When the French are on form and play rugby at its very best, it is an art form. How apt, then, that the new rugby shirt, which is on offer through their club website, is an Andy Warhol styled image of the ex queen of France “Blanche de Castille” (1188-1252), who was known for her beauty and wisdom and who gave birth to 12 children.

It shouldn’t surprise us, as Stade Francais have long been known for doing things slightly differently and more extravagantly than the rest, whether it is pushing out the boundaries in sporting apparel or putting on spectacular sporting fixtures at the Stade de France for their top rugby fixtures.

More than anything else, this is attributable to their flamboyant, perma-tanned President, Max Guazzini, who has overseen the development of Stade Francais into one of France’s and Europe’s rugby heavyweights.

However, this top class cosmopolitan squad has come at massive expense and, while they have championed the French league five times in the last decade, ultimate success in the Heineken Cup has eluded them, twice being the bridesmaids in 2001 and 2005 against Leicester and Toulouse respectively.

Last season, when I was asked for my prediction about potential Heineken Cup winners, I avoided the obvious Toulouse or Munster and instead plumped for Stade Francais, because I truly believed that if they got their act together and could harness that Latin temperament without lapsing into inconsistency, they could be real contenders.

But once again they disappointed as their capricious nature got the better of them. But I think exactly the same this year and their early season form points to a team in a rich vein of form.

Top of the table and unbeaten in the Top 14 is impressive, even at this early stage of the season, particularly when you consider that a number of these games have been won away from home, which, in France, is incredibly difficult to do. Of course, it is the players who provide the cutting edge – their teamsheet reads like a who’s who. Above all, in Sergio Parisse and Juan Martin Hernandez, Stade Francais have two of the world’s leading players who can have as much individual impact on the game as that other backrow/flyhalf combination, New Zealand’s Ritchie McCaw and Dan Carter.

Crucially, their best signing may actually have been off the pitch with their coach, ex Wallaby prop, Ewen McKenzie. He has previous rugby experience in France, so maybe has a better appreciation of rugby culture there than most foreigners, but his Southern hemisphere no-nonsense approach seems to have a pragmatism which counterbalances well the flamboyance of the Parisien set-up. Do they sound unbeatable? Of course they do. Am I talking them up? Of course. And that is where Ulster’s greatest chance of success lies.

All things being equal and certainly in the light of this season you would expect Stade to win this fixture by a country mile. The thing is that they think that as well. Their record of four games and four losses at Ravenhill just doesn’t add up, it doesn’t make sense, but somehow that intangible that makes rugby such a wonderful sport has played its part on each occasion. There is no better feeling than to send the French favourites home with their tails between their legs.

Well, I’ll qualify that – it’s great to beat the English teams, but that is just because, irrationally, they are English. Beating the top French teams is so satisfying because you know that somehow, through sheer bloody-mindedness, you have forced their quality to succumb to your greater will.

No matter what the circumstances or quality of performance, thank goodness Ulster now have a win under their belts, as this provides the most fundamental platform – the team can win. But this Saturday is different, it is special, it is Heineken Cup rugby and anything can happen.

It has been a hopeless summer in terms of weather and September wasn’t much better, but for once, we need to put our selfish tendencies to one side, get the wellies and umbrellas packed and do a raindance for Saturday afternoon.

If the weather turns nasty, just take a look at the Stade players’ faces getting off the bus. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when they walk into the away changing rooms and, most of all, oh, to get inside their heads when they hear the Ravenhill roar.

You underestimate the intensity that a full-house at Ravenhill can create.

It gives me goosebumps remembering it, thinking about it. Running out, it always surprises you, even as a home player, and amidst the roars, you somehow feel that little bit bigger, that little bit stronger and that little bit tougher. It is one of the greatest feelings that I have ever known and the one which is the hardest to replace when you hang up the boots.

No doubt the odds are massively stacked against Ulster on Saturday, but four times Ravenhill has seen this Stade Francais challenge and four times it has been repelled.

Max Guazzini and his band of merry men in pink have undoubtedly added much colour and glamour to the rugby world, but glamour doesn’t win rugby matches.

As for me, I’m seriously thinking about making an online clothing purchase for this coming Saturday night. “Vive la difference”.

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