Neil Francis: French resistance awaits but Ulster must treat La Rochelle with a complete lack of respect
I remember 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 of the time.
I explained to him 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 about five matches this weekend where hopefully pride and ambition will trump apathy and the sense of the foregone. First off, the match between Ulster and La Rochelle is compelling for a variety of reasons. Ulster will not win the cup this year - and neither will La Rochelle.
La Rochelle were hot favourites to win the Bouclier after being runaway leaders of the Top 14 for the entire 2016/'17 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 and dry throat the order of the day as Toulon knew how to stop La Rochelle from playing their instinctive game. Ulster could do well to watch that match.
La Rochelle went to the Ricoh in Round 4 and suffered a 38-point swing, losing 21-3. They did rotate their squad but Ulster will also have observed what Wasps did. It was a wet and windy day - a Ravenhill type of day - and the surprise result more down to Wasps' application than the whimsy and flimsy of the Regal Bakery Afternoon Tea XV.
Land temperatures in Australia have hit record levels recently but are a distance off how hot it is under Les Kiss' collar. La Rochelle have never won a competition of any consequence and they need to be treated with a total lack of respect and disdain by Ulster if the northern province is even remotely serious about themselves.
Ulster have 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 doesn't 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 rivals. 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 Guinness Pro14 that the rivalry between the top teams has become very intense. Glasgow have looked from afar with envious eyes at Leinster's success over the last decade and have tried to emulate the way that they play and copy the culture they have cultivated.
A really painful bonus-point loss to Leinster in Scoutstown in Round 2 will have caused a sea of resentment to roll over with the warriors this Sunday. If their new and ambitious coach Dave Rennie was serious about the image and identity of the Warriors, he would not countenance arriving in Dublin with a WWF attitude.
Rennie said around the time of their back-to-back engagements with Montpellier that they would now have to concentrate on the Pro14. He didn't rotate his squad that much but still got beaten in both fixtures. They were competitive - only losing the away match 36 to 26. I just can't see the Scots not making a little bit more than a nuisance of themselves. It is bad for business and bad for morale to send a weakened team to a match where even if you win, there is no material benefit other than putting one over a rival. Glasgow admire and dislike Leinster at the same time and this could be a tricky tie for the Blues.
The Exeter Chiefs - the good guys of the Premiership coached by the honourable Rob Baxter, who probably still believes that his side can still qualify - take on Montpellier, who were well beaten at the Altrad Stadium by the Chiefs.
I think the French side don't have the game-plan or the ability to execute where Leinster succeeded in beating a tremendously competitive West Country side in their own back yard. Baxter's men do not go through the motions and I think Montpellier will fall here. I am backing a proper rugby culture and an ambitious side that will play to win every time they take the field - particularly at home.
Racing know that two wins and 19 points will get them to the quarter-finals - more than likely as a losing entity. They have this depressingly familiar and frustrating ability to go from contender to pretender to surrender and back again. They do not deal well with Munster's belligerence at the breakdown or the way they limit the space of a creative side like Racing.
If Racing knuckle down and are patient, they have the wherewithal to really trouble Munster which could set off a whispering campaign if they lose - Munster normally should be beginning to flex their muscle around now.
So integrity in the even meaningless games this weekend and no guarantees for any of the Irish provinces.
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