Last Saturday another chapter was written in Ulster’s rich rugby history. What is it about French teams and Ravenhill? I must confess that I felt utterly drained at the final whistle.
Despite having been in similar situations myself, I have largely forgotten what it feels like. As a result, I cannot even start to imagine how exhausting it must have been for the players and how their bodies felt the next day.
Certainly not as sore as the Clermont players — it is amazing what a difference winning makes to your mental and physical state.
Looking at the team sheet, it looked like a monumental clash between the respective forward packs, and so it proved.
Yes, it is probably wrong to single out individuals on a day when everyone played their part, but three players deserve particular praise.
Firstly, how could you not mention Stephen Ferris? The mark of a great player is to be able to raise your game when it matters most.
Brian O’Driscoll has displayed that quality for over a decade. Ferris is hewn from the same rock.
His tackles, ball-carrying ability and overall physicality simply lift the crowd and must be inspirational to his teammates on the pitch.
His contribution was eye-catching to supporters and intimidating to the opposition — Ferris was nothing short of irresistible.
His colleague in the back row, Chris Henry, also qualifies as an all-action hero, although his contributions were less openly visible.
Nevertheless, Henry’s workrate and intelligence stood out, whether it was at the breakdown, making vital ground in possession or covering back in defence.
There will probably always be discussions regarding his best position and whether he is a natural seven or more of a number eight.
Maybe Saturday was an occasion that needed the best of both — the bottom line is that he delivered emphatically and with this sort of performance Henry absolutely deserves his place on the pitch.
Prior to the game, I was asked about the players that Ulster were missing, Jared Payne and Ruan Pienaar, and how this might affect Ulster adversely.
My response and my opinion were clear — one player who needed to produce something special was scrumhalf Paul Marshall. It must be incredibly difficult knowing that you are the understudy, but Marshall |(pictured) had the best game in a white shirt that I have witnessed so far in his career.
The measure of a scrumhalf is not the dashing break down the line or the quick tap and go, it is in executing the basics as well as possible.
Marshall’s passing was crisp and accurate, and his box-kicking could be held up as an example to any aspiring scrumhalf — it was virtually flawless. Above all, the way in which Marshall responded to his own personal challenge says a huge amount about his strength of character.
As he looks forward to the next test posed by the Tigers at Welford Road, his character will be tested once again and it is important that he looks no further than repeating his concentration on doing the basics well once again.
Maybe the biggest compliment that I can give is that not once did we say or think that we missed Ruan Pienaar on the pitch.
Last week I talked about the opening 20 minutes setting the tone, but it was a quarter to forget.
Thank goodness Morgan Parra did not have his kicking boots with him, as he left plenty of points out on the pitch in the opening half. Ulster did not let him or his Clermont colleagues off the hook.
It was in that second half performance that we witnessed the reaction of the Ulster players to what must have been said at halftime. Discipline, focus, territory and possession all came together to produce one word — pressure, which eventually told. Maybe, most importantly, what this all required was that Ulster had to dig deep into their stores of self-belief.
The players came through this demanding test and, while Clermont claimed a losing bonus point, ten minutes from the final whistle, we would have been happy with any sort of victory. The team know that they have to go away from home and get something, and nothing has changed.
It was absorbing stuff and ultimately a job well done.