Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Ulster capable of European history

Key man: Johann Muller will lead Ulster into a quarter-final clash against Saracens

WITH the post-Welford Road feel-good factor still present, interest in rugby has never been greater hereabouts.

Everywhere one goes, people are talking about Ulster and asking themselves – and just about anyone else who has an opinion on the subject – if Mark Anscombe's men can go all the way and conquer Europe this season?

I have no doubt they can, for any side capable of beating Montpellier at Stade Yves du Manoir and storming the Leicester Tigers' Welford Road citadel en route to a perfect played six, won six return from their pool-stage fixtures really cannot be viewed as anything other than very serious contenders for the prize.

Inevitably there are doomsday soothsayers who are majoring on the fact that never since the advent of the tournament has the European Rugby Cup been lifted by a team who began winning all six pool matches.

They are right; to date, that has not been done. Since the introduction of the four-team-three-matches-home-and-away per-pool format in 1997-98, there has not yet been a case of a club chalking up nine straight start-to-finish victories.

Wasps won all six Pool 2 matches in '97-98, only then to lose 25-18 to Pool 3 runners-up, Brive, at Loftus Road.

It was 2001-02 before anyone next won all of their pool-stage games, with the distinction going to Bath. But they, too, came a cropper with visitors, Llanelli, winning 27-10 at the Recreation Ground.

The following season saw Leinster clear each of the first seven obstacles before falling at the eighth, Perpignan having beaten them 21-14 in the Lansdowne Road semi-final.

History repeated itself two years later when, having put paid to Bath, Benetton Treviso and Bougoin home and away, Leinster went down 29-13 to Leicester Tigers at the quarter-final stage.

The next example of promising starters' failure to go the distance was in 2006-07 when not one, but two clubs – Llanelli Scarlets and Biarritz Olympique – won all of their fixtures in Pools 5 and 6 respectively.

But in the quarter-final at Estadio Anoeta, Biarritz lost 7-6 to Northampton Saints, the Pool 6 runner-up. And although the Scarlets beat Munster 24-15 in their Stradey Park tie, in turn they were felled by Leicester Tigers (33-17) in the Walkers Stadium semi-final.

Cardiff Blues won their six Pool 6 games in 2008-09 and then beat Toulouse 9-6 in the Millennium Stadium quarter-final before suffering the agony of losing a penalty shoot-out after drawing 26-26 with Leicester at the same venue.

Northampton Saints – whose line-up included Roger Wilson – posted a Pool 1 maximum in 2010-11 before accounting for Ulster and Perpignan to book a place in the Twickenham final against Leinster.

Leading 22-6 at half-time, they looked to have laid the hoodoo common to all previous six-from-six pool-stage winners, but after the break Jonny Sexton-inspired Leinster hit back with 27 unanswered points.

Ulster supporters have fond memories of having added to the pattern in 2011-12 when, in an Easter Sunday quarter-final they proceeded to make light of top seeds Munster's six out of six record at Thomond Park.

And although Leinster were unbeaten en route to that season's title to which they pipped Ulster at Twickenham in the first all-Irish final, the Dubliners had drawn their opening match in Montpellier.

Last season saw both Harlequins and Clermont Auvergne storm through Pool 3 and Pool 5 respectively. But Munster then did to 'Quins what Ulster had done to them 12 months earlier. And while Clermont first beat Montpellier and then Munster to set up an all-French final against Toulon in Dublin, that proved a bridge too far.

History notwithstanding, I have been heartened to hear Mark Anscombe say that all such results are history and have no bearing to the here and now. In short, there is no logical reason why top seeds cannot go all the way and complete the task of which all evidence shows them to be capable.

Anscombe certainly is not handicapped by superstition. Nevertheless, he was delighted at Ulster having landed an Aviva Stadium semi-final if they can see off Saracens.

Provided they manage to avoid injuries to key players, most assuredly Ulster are good enough to become the first team ever to create history by achieving a perfect nine wins en route to the Heineken Cup.

Reflecting on Ulster's recent European pedigree, Anscombe pointed to the absence of Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Chris Henry from key games. And he asked: "Would people have thought what we've done to be possible without Stephen Ferris a couple of years ago?"

Simple answer to his rhetorical question is 'no'. So add that fact to what you have seen so far and keep the faith. It is attainable.

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