Rugby Union: European Cup - Gallic goliaths await Humphreys' Ulster

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IT WOULD BE stretching a point to describe Ravenhill as an oasis of rugby sanity, especially when 20,000 Ulstermen are preparing to give Stade Francais the mother and father of all ear-bashings in this afternoon's perfectly poised European Cup semi-final, writes Chris Hewett. But this much can safely be predicted: for 80 wind-swept minutes in Belfast, passion will temporarily replace politics as the common currency of a game slowly sinking in a quicksand of greed, chicanery and naked self-interest. In short, it will be a sight for sore eyes.

The English clubs' boycott of this season's championship remains the most desperate of many tactical errors in their on-going conflict with rugby officialdom, be it in the shape of the International Board, the Rugby Football Union or European Rugby Cup Ltd, those far from blameless administrators whose shambolic stewardship of the competition would be enough to make a parson swear. If the English pulled out on the basis that there could be no half-decent tournament without them, they were badly mistaken. Ulster, ironically reinforced by a battalion of Allied Dunbar Premiership refugees, have made a glorious scrap of the thing by dumping Toulouse on their well-appointed Gallic backsides en route to the last four.

David Humphreys, the former London Irish outside-half who has captained Ulster throughout their European adventure in the absence of Mark McCall, is almost unnaturally modest in his assessment of his province's timely renaissance as a major power in northern hemisphere rugby. "I think it's too simplistic to put our improvement down to the return of the Premiership contingent," he insists. "The thing that has struck me most deeply this season is the performance of people like Gary Longwell, our lock, and Tony McWhirter, our flanker, who have played all their senior rugby here."

For all that, it is to Humphreys, Simon Mason, Jon Bell and Allen Clarke that Ulster will look this afternoon, for no one comes within a bull's roar of beating Stade Francais, the overwhelming favourites, without maximising every ounce of available talent, experience, and general know-how. "We'll play with all the Irishness associated with Ulster and, yes, I'll put the ball in the air a few times, just to see how the French react," conceded Humphreys, very much the form horse at No 10 as Ireland approach the Five Nations' Championship. "But we know we'll need to offer more than that; we're taking a big step up the hill in playing this lot."

This afternoon's winners will face either Colomiers, last year's European Conference champions, or Perpignan, the Basque side who boast Raphael Ibanez, the French national captain, at hooker and the brilliant Thomas Lievremont at No 8. The two meet in the suburbs of Toulouse tomorrow, as do four other French sides in the semi-finals of the second-tier European Shield. Brive visit Bourgoin in the first match, with Montferrand hosting Narbonne in the second.

Welsh Rugby Union officials are expected to confirm Pontypridd and Llanelli as two of their four European Cup representatives next year; indeed, they plan to invest around pounds 500,000 in each to help strengthen their squads. Rebel clubs Cardiff and Swansea would be the other choices, but both are still locked in their on-going dispute with the governing body.