Belfast... By Laura Butler
They've waited 13 long years and now Rory Best’s proud Ulster men are hungry to reclaim European glory.
Dropping in behind enemy lines all the way from Dublin, I stormed Belfast in the build-up to Saturday’s historic Heineken Cup final.
They haven’t experienced such hype since they last savoured the silverware in 1999, but Ulster and their hardcore fans can’t wait to tackle BOD and the Leinster boys this weekend.
With the ultimate showdown looming, it’s full steam ahead for the white-shirted warriors who have just returned from an intense four-day training trip to Portugal and are raring to go for another shot at victory.
And although it’ll be a tough battle against the current title-holders, there is an air of excitement rather than nervousness in the camp.
Lyndsey Irwin, spokesperson of Ulster Rugby, said the hard-working side is relishing the notion of entering the anticipated decider as underdogs.
“It’s hard to look past what Leinster have achieved in the last few years. We’re well aware that we go into the game as underdogs, but I think these are two teams that know each other so well — not just in how they play, but personally also — so our guys reckon that on the day if they play to their potential, they’re a match for anybody Leinster are acknowledging and recognising that.”
Lyndsey insisted that while Joe Schmidt’s Blues may have “all the pedigree”, fast-paced winger Andrew Trimble and his pals “really fancy their chances”.
“Last year, they were almost happy to have gotten to the quarter-finals — even though they lost, there was a great deal of satisfaction to be taken from that.
“Whereas now, they won’t just be satisfied, they’re more ready and more prepared — they really do believe they could cause an upset,” Lyndsey added.
Up to 40,000 Ulster supporters are expected to descend on the grounds of Twickenham, and for those who won’t get the chance to cheer from the stands, the Odyssey Arena will be showing the action on big screens.
Almost every jersey in the province has sold out as Ulster’s loyal army of supporters prepare for battle. The local contingent has been so enthusiastic about Saturday’s game that sports stores are struggling to meet demand.
Managing director of Podium 4 Sports, Paul Rothwell, revealed that his staff have been inundated by followers looking to get kitted out in red and white.
“We’ve sold hundreds and hundreds in the past week. We had to order more and have them flown in from China. We had to buy a few hundred in that batch because demand was so high.”
“All we have left are four kids jerseys ... We’ve been swamped.”
And Paul has decided to make a weekend of the occasion and is jetting over to London with his son and a group of friends.
“I missed the last final in 1999 — I was away so I couldn’t go. So this is my time now, I can’t wait.”
Dublin... By Maureen Coleman
Donnybrook, Dublin 4, the heart of Leinster rugby.
It takes a brave woman in an Ulster top to wander these streets, where the blue hue of Joe Schmidt's boys runs through the residents like a stick of rock.
My mission? To Stand Up For The Ulster Men. On Monday, I was dispatched to the streets of Dublin's Fair City to ‘tease and taunt' the Leinster fans ahead of this weekend's Heineken Cup Final.
Flirt with fit rugby men? Don't mind if I do.
Of course, with Ulster entering this Saturday's all-Irish showdown as underdogs, it's me who takes the ribbing. But in true Ulster spirit, I put up a good fight.
Ahead of my task I spend Sunday night at the home of a Leinster family in one of Dublin's leafy suburbs.
Company director Mike McKay hails from Northampton, his wife Noeleen is a Northern Irish lass, while their three children Ciara, (19) Colm (16) and Michael (13) are all Dublin born and bred. But there are no divided loyalties in this family — all of them are Leinster supporters.
Mike (46) is travelling to Twickenham this weekend with his two boys, confident his team — the current trophy holders — will become the second side since Leicester to win the Heineken Cup back to back.
“Leinster are stronger,” he says. “But this could be anyone's game. Finals like this one are too hard to call.”
“Indeed,” I point out. “Every team that has entered the Heineken Cup Final undefeated throughout the tournament actually goes on to lose.”
I'm beginning to impress myself with my knowledge. It's funny what wearing a rugby top can do.
Next morning I don my shirt again and head for D4. This is enemy territory for the Ulster fan.
A young man chatting on his mobile phone suddenly interrupts his conversation. “You can't be wearing that top round here,” he shouts.
I think he is joking.
At Kiely's pub in Donnybrook — a favourite watering hole with local Leinster fans — manager John O'Brien pretends to throw me out on my ear when I unveil my shirt.
“You're mad coming in here wearing that,” he laughs, as he pours me a drink.
John is expecting up to 700 punters in the pub this Saturday.
Even the local gardai get into the spirit, threatening to caution me for crimes against fashion. John Clancy and Peter Hughes, from Donnybrook Garda Station, say they believe Leinster will walk away with the trophy.
“But who do you want to win?” I press Garda Clancy, when he reveals he is actually a Munster man at heart.
“I can't tell you that.
“I have to work around here.”