Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Stand up for the Ulstermen, they have done us all proud

Ulster ÊStefan Terblanche celebrates victory over Edinburgh during Saturday's Heineken Cup Semi Final at the Aviva Stadium.

Stand up for the Ulstermen. On the road south, the motorway was packed with coaches and cars bearing all manner of Ulster man, woman and child.

Forty thousand of us had decided to descend on Dublin - as if the armies of King Billy and King James had joined forces at the Boyne for one special day to enjoy a friendly invasion of the Irish capital together.

Nothing stood in the way other than the queues at the motorway toll gates, the gardai directing traffic to Ballsbridge and more queues at the filling station check-outs and loos.

But did anybody really care how long the journey took to Dublin or back as long as the result was the right one - which it was.

A proud possession of mine is a small silver hip flask inscribed "Ulster v Colomiers" European Cup Final, 30/1/1999" when thousands of we northerners took Dublin by storm.

Thirteen years on, my hip flask was shared around in celebration on Saturday evening in Dublin again. The achievement of Ulster is yet another inspirational moment in the fortunes of this once troubled province. Time and again, talented sportsmen and women going back 40 years to Mary Peters in the Munich Olympics have demonstrated another side to life here.

Sporting success is important in the development of a more normal civilised society taking us further away from the disastrous decades of the past.

The chant 'Stand Up for the Ulstermen' which began on the terraces of Ravenhill, Belfast's famous old rugby fortress and which echoed across the leafy avenues of Ballsbridge on Saturday evening, will now be carried to the heart of London.

What Twickenham and the English will make of it all on May 19, we can but guess, but of one thing everyone can be sure. No matter how deeply partisan the Ulster rugby fans can sound, they threaten no one. Rugby supporters abide by an exemplary law of mutual respect which other sports, notably soccer, would do well to emulate.

Those envious of Ulster's success may say it is only down to the influence of South African and other imported players. Notably all the Ulster points on Saturday were scored by Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg.

Undoubtedly foreign talent was a key influence as it is in many sports today, for example, Lionel Messi from Argentina playing for Barcelona, the host of Premiership soccer stars from abroad or the fact that only one of this year's winning Cambridge Boat Race crew hailed from the UK.

Ulster could not have reached the Heineken Cup Final without the skills of Pienaar but neither could the team have won without the brilliance of such home-grown talent as Rory Best and Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble. The combination from home and away proved decisive again at the Aviva stadium but the future must be about developing more talent locally in all sports generally.

We have only to look at the plight of Glasgow Rangers and so many British soccer clubs, with large wage packets, to recognise the folly of over-stretching resources.

Whether rugby is the better for the professional era remains a matter of debate even amongst some of the most illustrious names in the game.

Like so many once amateur sports, the pressures on aspiring stars are greater than ever.

The exacting daily training and fitness regime; the physical development of today's players, the support staff of coaches, the analysis of television - are all light years removed from the old days when even international players were lucky to get together on a Friday before a big match.

Sport has become a public obsession. Success is seen as a confidence boosting stimulus. From Mary Peters emerging from an embattled Belfast to win Britain's only athletic gold medal at Munich in 1972 to Rory McIlroy becoming the world's leading golfer in 2012, Northern Ireland and Ulster has had a small share of heroes and heroines of which we should all be justly proud.

To that list can be added the Ulster rugby team winning the European Cup in 1999 and now reaching the final at Twickenham.

Stand up for the Ulstermen - there was a time not so long ago when men in white coats might have taken you away for singing such words.

Not anymore.

In 2012, we can sing those words with a new pride and passion about this little corner of Europe.

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