Stade's hangover offers hope to Munster
There is a strange familiarity about this week for Munster as they prepare to face an opponent they have already prepared to face.
Their first visit to Paris was scheduled for November, but the terrorist attacks and subsequent fears over security claimed the Stade Jean Bouin fixture and they kicked their heels for a rare free weekend and put their analysis of Stade Francais in cold storage.
Last week, they dusted off the DVDs and set about analysing the French champions all over again. This time, they had more evidence to work with but they will remain perplexed by a side packed with experienced operators who can't seem to get their act together this season.
Sunday's home victory over Toulouse was just the champions' fifth in their 12 Top 14 games to date, lifting them to 11th in the table above Agen, Oyonnax and Pau.
From heady heights of lifting the Bouclier de Brennus, they are now looking over their shoulder at the dreaded relegation zone and that should come as good news for Munster.
The two sides both enjoyed morale-boosting wins last weekend, but both will know that they were fortunate to do so. Anthony Foley's men relied on a stellar defensive effort and some Ulster profligacy to win at Ravenhill, while Toulouse are still complaining about the referee's influence on their defeat in Paris.
Yet, the results can infuse belief in both camps ahead of Saturday night's clash at Stade Jean Bouin.
Munster need to win if they are to qualify from Pool 4. Indeed, they need to go back-to-back against the Parisians and beat Treviso away to have a chance after taking nothing from their December fixtures against Leicester Tigers.
Stade took the maximum points from their pre-Christmas clashes with Treviso having lost heavily in Leicester and lead Foley's side by five points with three games remaining. Success for Munster in the next fortnight can turn that on its head, but it won't be easy.
"You're going to the home of the French champions, in their own back yard, you have to be respectful and give a performance that's worthy of getting a result. They're not French champions for no reason," Foley said, highlighting Stade's counter-attacking abilities as a real threat.
"It doesn't matter if it's a prop or a No 15, they're all available to carry the ball and make decisions.
"You couple that with the fact that they've a very strong scrum, when you go back and look at the Top 14 knockout stages last year - they destroyed every scrum in front of them. They've a lot of top-class players in their group with an ability to beat you one on one.
"Where we need to go is probably where Leicester went in making it a team event."
Although Foley is wary of Gonzalo Queseda's side's attack, they remain one of the Top 14's least productive attacking sides. Only Brive, Pau and Agen have scored fewer tries.
However, with a brains trust of Sergio Parisse, Will Genia and either France out-half Jules Plisson or Springbok Morné Steyn, they can beat you without scoring tries; eking out penalties through their set-piece and knocking them over from range.
In the scrum, France tighthead Rabah Slimani is a world-class operator, while they have a string of top-quality front-rows to assist him. Ireland's old friend Pascal Papé adds power from the second-row along with lineout specialist Hugh Pyle who adds to their set-piece range.
His compatriot Mark Chisholm knows all about their strength in the air from his time at Bayonne.
"They're very strong in the lineouts," the Munster second-row said. "They have great lineout jumpers. Pyle is an Australian who is very tall, very athletic and very quick off the ground and Sergio Parisse is everywhere in that lineout.
"So, strategising around the key players and the key jumpers is quite tough. Watching Stade Francais in the Top 14, they steal a lot of ball. The thing with that is you have to be confident with your quality of your lift, your jump and your throw and if that's what you go in with, that's what you back."
One battle Joe Schmidt will be watching closely is that of Stade captain Parisse and Munster skipper CJ Stander, who enjoyed his first taste of the international set-up earlier this week. The Italian remains his side's talisman after almost a decade in the various shades of pink, but Foley watched Ireland negate his influence at the World Cup and sees a potential template to copy.
"I think Ireland looked after him. It's a big focus at international level, but he's massive for Stade Francais," the coach said.
"There's some ridiculous stat out there that they only win 30pc of the games when he's not there. It's a sign of the man, he is that. He's been a great player for them, he's been a great player for Italy and he's probably one of the best players in the world game over the last decade.
"CJ will look forward to it, it's about taking a step forward for a lot of our guys. This group have put themselves in bad positions and come out of it, they know how to get a result. We'll see how we go."
After beating Ulster, Munster can get their campaign firmly on track if they can plant doubt in the French side's minds from early on. Stade have star power, but the crown appears to have weighed them down and they look beatable if the Reds can perform.