Warwick hoping for cup romance before bidding adieu to Paris
STADE FRANCAIS' form in the French Top 14 belies their place in the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
The Parisians, once the aristocrats of French rugby, finished their season languishing just four places above bottom side Mont de Marsan. For a club with their renowned history, it's been a difficult season.
More than that, it's been a difficult few seasons. Not least for Paul Warwick, who finishes his French adventure this weekend.
Warwick, who is likely to start on the bench tomorrow night, joined Stade from Munster in 2011 with a head full of ambitions. He freely admits that his French experience hasn't been what he had expected when he was signed by former Leinster coach Michael Cheika.
"There is more talent at this club than any club I have been at in the past," said Warwick. "The trade-off has been too many big personalities all pulling in different directions.
"That's why we've had yet another average season. When you're not all pulling in the same direction, it dilutes the talent you have."
The club's troubles have been conspicuously absent in Europe this season. They lost just one game in the pool campaign and were excellent in their away quarter-final in seeing off Bath 36-20.
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Stade then qualified for their second Amlin final in three seasons when they beat Perpignan 25-22 in an all-French semi-final at Stade Aime Giral. In between, Cheika was replaced by Richard Pool-Jones, who, according to Warwick, has brought stability to the side.
"The change in coaches helped certainly. The players have been a lot more relaxed in Europe and we've been playing a lot of good rugby. The changes at the top are one of the reasons why our European form has been better."
Warwick describes tomorrow's final appearance as "bonus territory" for Stade. However, he admits that the prospect of facing Leinster is a sobering one. Stade have a reputation for flamboyant rugby but Warwick believes they have the ability to adapt their game.
"The games we've done well in this season have been scrappy ones," he said. "We love to throw the ball around, and we're well able to do that. We can also dig in and play a tight game where we are living off little moments.
"That's a strength we've developed over the season. It's a huge ask against a side as clinical as Leinster. They have a magnificent set of forwards and the quality through their backline is well known.
"But we have evolved as a team this season and if we need to keep the ball close, we have the ability to do that.
"It's all about playing what's in front of you and making the right decisions at the right times, which is a part of our game we've improved."
Warwick's time in France has been tough. He was injured during his first season and this year his elder daughter Lea (13) has been living in Mallow with her maternal grandparents. He'd ideally have preferred a move to an Irish side, but the rules governing foreign players prevented that.
"Lea didn't settle here so she's happier back with Carol's parents and she's flourishing there."
The drier climate in Paris has helped younger daughter Eire's cystic fibrosis – "the care for her here has been excellent" – but reuniting the family in Worcester next season is exciting.
"I don't regret moving to Paris. It's not been what I expected but I'd have regretted it more if I'd never done it. Worcester will provide us with stability and it'll be great as a family. They're an ambitious club and I'm looking forward to it."
Before he embarks on the next chapter in his career he desperately hopes to help Stade to European glory. Success would, he believes, be just reward for a club he says are the heartbeat of Parisian rugby.
"There has been a change at the top and the new guys are investing in a new stadium and are committed to rebuilding Stade to what it once was," he said.
"Stade is the club Parisians traditionally rally around. They are the original, and winning the Amlin would be a great consolation for the club after a tough couple of seasons. It would also secure Heineken Cup involvement next season, which would be great."
It's a tough ask against a team of Leinster's quality and against such a dynamic set of forwards, but cup rugby is a lottery in many ways.
The sense of occasion, the increased interest in the team in the week of the final, the demand for tickets from family and friends – all of these issues will impact differently on each individual player. The razzmatazz of every final has the capacity to inspire or intimidate, and Leinster will know how to cope from experience.
Stade will be hoping they will find inspiration on the day.