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Comment: Ulster must treat La Rochelle with disdain if they're to keep Euro dream alive

 

By Neil Francis

I recall bringing my youngest son to the World Wrestling Federation in the States.

At that time he was just seven years old but was able to work out that if you come to the ring second with the better introduction, louder rock music, better make-up and the more outlandish budgie smugglers, well then it seemed you would be the winner all the time.

I explained that there was an 'arrangement' by which Rick Ferrari always 'beats' Larry the lamb in the end - he didn't seem to mind as long as the good guy won.

I have always found it fascinating talking to any Irish player who has played a few seasons in the Top 14.

They will tell you that the season is decided as soon as the fixture schedule is published. You win all your home games and then there are about five away games that you fancy you could have a go at and actually pick a team to go and try to win those games.

The rest of the time you pick a shadow team that goes out and shadow boxes. Everyone knows the drill when the Regal Bakery Afternoon Tea XV is put up on the notice board.

Feign enthusiasm, mimic work-rate and by all means break a sweat, but we have no intention of winning this game. The L word is never mentioned, but winning is never on the menu and everyone knows the drill - it is the world wrestling federation. No Irish player could ever condition themselves to 80 minutes of fixture fulfilment. This peculiar trait is solely a French practice.

We have a few matches this weekend where hopefully pride and ambition trump apathy and the sense of the foregone. A culture where because of the prestige of the competition or where certain teams realise that not turning up is bad for business and bad for the team.

First off, the clash between Ulster and La Rochelle is compelling for a variety of reasons. Ulster will not win the cup this year - nor will La Rochelle when it really comes down to it.

La Rochelle were red hot favourites to win the Bouclier after being run away leaders of the Top 14 for the entire 2016/2017 season.

They came undone at home in a try-less semi-final against Toulon. Any time there is a tight game and Brock James is playing you are going to lose. 18-15 the result as Toulon knew how to stop La Rochelle play their instinctive game.

Ulster could do well to watch that match. La Rochelle went to the Ricoh in round four and suffered a 38-point swing losing 21-3. They did rotate their squad but still had nine starters in the run out team.

Ulster will also have observed what Wasps did that afternoon - it was a wet and windy day, a Ravenhill type of day - the surprise result more down to Wasps' application and determination than the whimsy and flimsy of the opposing XV.

Temperatures in Australia have hit record levels recently but are a distance off how hot it is under Les Kiss' collar.

La Rochelle are flesh and blood - they have never won a competition of any consequence and need to be treated with a total lack of respect and disdain by Ulster if the northern province is even remotely serious about themselves.

If there is anyone in their ranks who plans to miss a few tackles, maybe they could tell Kiss before kick off rather than after. Ulster have the personnel and the ingredients to turn the French side over, but this must be the complete defensive performance. It is there for them.

Anyone who thinks Harlequins will get thumped by Wasps at the Stoop may just need to know how much these two hate each other. Harlequins are gone from the competition and have performed abysmally, but the L word and 80 minutes of shadow boxing may not be on the menu against their hated former London rivals. I think Wasps could easily be turned over by Quins - it would be an awful shame if Ulster couldn't take advantage of it.

It is significant in the PRO14 that the rivalry between the top teams has become something of a cliché.

Glasgow have looked from afar with envious eyes at Leinster's success over the last decade and have tried to emulate the way they play and copy the culture they have cultivated.

A really painful bonus point loss to Leinster in Scotstoun in round two will have caused a sea of resentment to roll over with the Warriors this Sunday.

Their new and ambitious coach Dave Rennie, if he is serious about the image and identity of the Glasgow Warriors, would not countenance arriving in Dublin with a weakened squad or a WWF attitude. Rennie said around the time of their back-to-back games with Montpelier that they would now have to concentrate on the PRO14. Rennie didn't rotate his squad that much but still lost both fixtures, although they were competitive in each game.

I just can't see the Scots not turning up and making a bit of a nuisance of themselves.

It's bad for business and morale to send a weakened team to a match where, even if you win, there is no benefit other than putting one over a rival. If you harbour title ambitions, anytime you get a chance to inflict damage on a team that you know will be in the final shake-up you should take it.

Glasgow admire and dislike Leinster at the same time, and I think this could be a tricky tie for the blue side.

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