Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Stand up for the Ulstermen

Some Ulster players bowed their heads when the final whistle blew. No need to lads. This was a day, even in defeat, to hold heads high.

Not just for a sterling performance in yesterday's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton, but for their efforts throughout an uplifting campaign.

Remember, before the pulsating clash in Milton Keynes, Ulster had not played a knockout match in Europe for 12 long years, so amongst the visiting fans who made the journey there was already a sense of pride.

Back in 1999, Ulster won the tournament under the shrewd guidance of Harry Williams, with David Humphreys pulling the strings, Andy Ward refusing to take a backward step and Simon Mason kicking score after score. Mason was so accurate he could have slotted a cabbage between the posts.

Then came over a decade of frustration and failure in Europe's toughest club competition.

After finally coming good in the group stages, there was hope that Brian McLaughlin's class of 2011 could repeat those heroic deeds of yesteryear and go on to claim another epic success.

While on the pitch Humphreys reigned supreme, off the pitch he's been an inspirational figure in helping build the impressive modern day Ulster squad.

In his role as operations manager, he has recruited top class South Africans such as Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg.

And in turn, coach McLaughlin has shown the tactical nous and man management skills to combine the foreign influence with homegrown talent.

He has done a wonderful job, moulding the side into winners, and this without the brilliant Stephen Ferris for most of the season.

Ulster have become used to winning. Add that to the importance of yesterday's match and it's understandable why they were so distressed and disappointed to lose 23-13.

At half-time Ulster were ahead of the Saints and their host of high profile English stars.

It was a ferocious battle. The intensity levels were greater than most of the recent Six Nations matches.

It was thrilling to watch as players from both sides smashed into tackles and displayed some stunning ball handling skills.

There was no shortage of character either with Andrew Trimble recovering from a knock on, that led to an early Northampton try, to round off a sensational period of attacking play from Ulster with a fine try of his own — Rory Best's incisive pass sending the Ireland winger over.

If Trimble had an eventful afternoon, Ulster's other winger Simon Danielli excited every time he touched the ball while Pienaar continued his excellent recent form. A word too for the baby faced kid that is Nevin Spence. What a future in prospect for the gifted 20-year-old.

Big things are expected from full-back Adam D'Arcy in years to come too. Unfortunately he fumbled the ball when the line beckoned with Ulster ready to tie things up at 20-20.

It was one of those what might have been moments.

With that opportunity missed, Northampton, spurred on by awesome lock Courtney Lawes, took control. They didn't let go.

As always, captain Best gave an honest post match assessment saying Ulster have much to learn to move from the last eight to victors in the competition. But such is the desire and commitment to improve at Ravenhill these days, Ulster have what it takes both physically and mentally to return to this stage of the competition next year — and go further.

It may be the end of the road in the Heineken Cup this time, but Ulster fans should believe that this could be the beginning of something special after so many years in the wilderness at this level.

And while Ulster look forward to that, they should not forget they still have much to play for in the remainder of the season. Europe's gone, but they could still win the Magners League.

Belfast Telegraph

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