Friday's Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final in Perpignan offers two of France's misfiring giants a chance to salvage their season.
Friday's Challenge Cup semi-final on the Catalan coast offers two of France's misfiring heavyweights a chance to salvage their season.
Attractive as the silverware on offer in Dublin on May 7 is, the main carrot for both these sides is the berth in the Heineken Cup next season that comes with the Challenge Cup title, since neither has managed to crack a spot in the French top six this year. Both are former runners-up in the Heineken Cup and regard Europe's top flight as their rightful place.
Both have had a tough time of it in recent years, but both are also showing signs of resurgence.
It's been ten years since Perpignan contested a European final and not much has gone right domestically for the Catalans since their French-title winning campaign in 2009. They have however secured seventh spot in the Top 14 this season due mainly to re-establishing Stade Aime Giral a fortress once again. Only Toulon and Castres have managed to scrape results there.
In Europe, Perpignan have a formidable record at the 'Bull Ring' where they have lost just once in their last 32 encounters spanning almost a decade. More than 14,000 fans will be on hand on Friday to create the infamously hostile atmosphere.
“The crowd here are incredible and playing at home will be a big factor,” said Perpignan fly-half James Hook.
“I came here with the Ospreys in 2009. It was a pretty special experience and one of the reasons I signed with Perpignan.
“It will be pretty daunting but it's also something you look forward to as a visiting player,” added the Welsh international.
Perpignan have already inflicted defeat on their Parisian visitors at Stade Aime Giral this season with a 32-16 Top 14 victory in February but honours are even between the rivals with Stade also winning their home tie.
Stade FranÃ§ais are making their third successive appearance in the Challenge Cup semi-finals, they reached the final in 2011 but lost at this stage last year.
Stade have failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup in the last four seasons but their impressive win in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals – when they ran four tries past Bath to win 36-20 at the Rec – is proof they are still a force to be reckoned with.
That result however belies their dreadful form on the road in domestic competition, where victory outside of Paris has become a rarity.
Both teams were impressive in the quarter finals, Perpignan out-muscling Toulouse 30-19 while Stade FranÃ§ais cruised past Bath. While Perpignan lost with a below-strength team in Agen last weekend, Stade FranÃ§ais were given a massive confidence boost with victory over Racing Metro in the Paris derby at the Stade de France.
Perpignan have won just one of their last four games in the Top 14 while Stade bounced back from heavy defeats to Toulouse and Toulon to be beat Agen and Racing.
It's set to be a good attacking spectacle. Stade FranÃ§ais have averaged 35 points per match in the tournament this season. Perpignan have averaged a gain of 606 metres per match in the tournament this season, higher than any other club left in either ERC competition.
Perpignan have made three changes to the side that beat Biarritz in their last home game. French international centre David Marty starts at 13, moving Lifeimi Mafi to inside centre. Luke Narraway returns to the back row while Dan Leo joins the second row in the absence of SÃ©bastien Vahaamahina.
Meanwhile, Stade have almost completely overhauled the side that beat Racing last week, making 13 changes. Young Jules Plisson starts at fly-half ahead of Felipe Contepomi, who has been dropped while Julien Dupuy takes over at scrum half.
Players to watch:
For Perpignan: Perpignan rested Wales star James Hook – who has scored 39 points in five tournament appearances, including 15 in the quarter-final victory over Toulouse – last week in anticipation of this all-important clash. Beyond USAP's ambitions, Friday provides the last chance for Hook to convince Warren Gatland that he is worthy of a place on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia.
For Stade FranÃ§ais: 22-year-old Jules Plisson has been handed the fly-half berth, despite Felipe Contepomi's heroics last week. Many rate Plisson as the next great French fly-half but he still lacks experience in high-pressure situations. This may be one.
Head-to-head: The battle of the looseheads will have a souther hemisphere flavour as former Chiefs team-mates Aled de Malmanche and Sona Taumalolo face off.
Prediction: Perpignan's home record in Europe is very impressive while Stade FranÃ§ais have struggled outside of the French capital over the last few years. Perpignan by six points
Perpignan: 15 Gavin Hume, 14 Farid Sid, 13 David Marty, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Adrien Plante, 10 James Hook, 9 Florian Cazenave, 8 Henry Tuilagi, 7 Luke Narraway, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Dan Leo, 3 Kisi Pulu, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Romain Terrain, 17 Sebastien Taofifenua, 18 Jerome Schuster, 19 Guillaume Vilaceca, 20 David Mele, 21 Sione Piukala, 22 Joffrey Michel, 23 Bertrand Guiry.
Stade FranÃ§ais: 15 Jerome Porical, 14 JÃ©rÃ©my Sinzelle, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Paul Williams, 11 Hugo Bonneval, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Julien Dupuy, 8 Sergio Parisse , 7 Pierre Rabadan, 6 David Lyons, 5 Scott Lavalla, 4 Gerhard Mostert, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Laurent Sempere, 1 Aled de Malmanche.
Replacements: 16 Remi Bonfils, 17 Stanley Wright, 18 JÃ©rÃ©my Becasseau, 19 Anton van Zyl, 20 Antoine Burban, 21 Nicolas Bezy, 22 Paul Warwick, 23 Julien Arias,
Date: Friday, April 26
Venue: Stade AimÃ© Giral, Perpignan
Kick-off: 21.00 (19.00 GMT)
Referee: George Clancy