David Humphreys, who captained Ulster when they won rugby’s European Cup 12 years ago, wants the Class of 2011 to exorcise the ghost of 1999 by carving out a niche for themselves in the province’s sports folklore.
The current Operations Director admits that he had not envisaged a 12-year wait for Ulster to reach the knock-out stages for only the second time in the competition’s 16-year history.
Tellingly, he wants to talk about 2011 rather than ’99, albeit that his starting point is a reference to the latter.
“I think when we first got to the quarter-final, 12 years ago now, it was totally unexpected. Probably it came a little bit too easily for us.
“Since then we’ve been living in the shadow of that one — I wouldn’t say lucky, but unique — year so I think it’s about time that we finally laid that to rest,” he said.
Humphreys is relieved that there is no real burden of expectation on the Ulster team. With Northampton installed as the bookmakers’ favourites it suits him that the heat will be on the Aviva Premiership side.
“I think if we were playing at home and going into the game as favourites it would be a very different type of pressure,” he said.
That is not to say there is no pressure on the Ulster team. There is, but it is coming from within the camp itself rather than from the media or supporters.
“The pressure is there because of the expectation that has been growing among the players. It has grown over the course of the past number of weeks and months when the results have gone our way,” said Humphreys, who went on to underline the often-thin dividing line between success and failure at the top level in sport.
“I think in the professional game that results are all that matters.
“But sometimes when you look at our performances in the course of that two-month period we could easily have lost the games we’ve won.
“I think that’s to the credit of the coaching staff and the players who have come in and have got that experience of winning close games.
“So the pressure is not on us; the pressure, without doubt, is on Northampton.
“For us it’s just a huge opportunity and it’s probably the first time this year that I’ve said I’d love to be playing this week.”
Ulster’s Operations Director does not feel the fact that Northampton have had to forfeit the advantage of playing at their Franklins Gardens home because its capacity is insufficient to meet the competition’s knock-out stage criteria is a significant factor.
“They’re going to be playing in front of 22,000 of whom probably 15,000-16,000 are going to be home fans which is the same number they’d have if they were playing at Franklins Gardens.
“It (Stadium MK) is not far from where they are so it’s a bit like us going down the road to play against an English team. I don’t think it will make that much difference,” he said.
Since the post-Six Nations return of their international players, Northampton — who had struggled in their big guns’ absence — have clicked into top gear, witness five tries in the 39-3 rout of London Wasps followed by eight in Sunday’s 53-24 demolition of Sale Sharks.
But the wily Humphreys is not reading too much into that.
“I don’t think that past form counts for a huge amount.
“It’s going to be a massive game for both sets of players and I think it’s just a case of looking forward to it as a huge opportunity.”