The highlight of the Heineken Cup final came several minutes from the end of the game.
A sea of white flags came to life as Ulster supporters everywhere in the Twickenham stadium stood up, waved like fury and sang our local chant. Their team had played below par and had been well beaten, but it did not matter a jot.
The supporters’ act was an acknowledgement of the effort and achievement that it took to get to the final in the first place. A sign of appreciation at the adventure the players have provided us with in this season’s competition.
And what an adventure it has been.
Last June when the qualifying pools came out, plenty of observers would have rated Ulster’s chances of even coming out of the pool as slim. I include myself in that group.
Yet, Leicester Tigers were dispatched, Clermont left with the now commonplace bitter taste of Ravenhill in their mouths, while professional jobs against Aironi put Ulster in a strong position.
Then, that emotional rollercoaster of Thomond Park took the first step in resetting the hierarchy within Irish provincial rugby.
The Ulster steamtrain may have been derailed by the history-making Leinster but it is further down the tracks than it has ever been in its professional history. Even with a 1999 European Cup victory in the memory banks, Ulster’s playing foundations are currently in the best possible state to defend their already strong position. This is significant progress.
What gives reason for further encouragement is that Ulster is a squad that clearly learns lessons from its experiences.
The squad pushed on from their quarter-final exit last season against Northampton Saints, which provided the basis for this season’s achievements. In the same way, the final will provide an indelible memory and add to the well of experience that the side needs to dip into in the future.
Indeed, maybe the biggest differentiating factor between Leinster and Ulster was that the former knew exactly how to handle the occasion.
There can be no doubt that from a pure rugby perspective it was a bad day at the office. You simply cannot afford that in a Heineken Cup final and particularly against a side like Leinster who displayed the near perfect balance between ferocious power, precision and ruthlessness.
Apart from the opening 10 minutes, Leinster always looked to have control.
Too many fundamental and uncharacteristic mistakes from Ulster led to turnovers and gave Leinster too many opportunities to attack.
There was the slightest of glimmers at 24-14, but the door was slammed shut almost as soon as it opened.
The final points may have put a gloss on the scoreboard, but it was indicative of Leinster’s superiority over the course of the game and remarkable hunger for success. They never let up and rightly will be favourites to make it a quartet of wins next season.
Nevertheless, the pleasure of watching and supporting one’s own team in a Heineken Cup final can and should never be underestimated.
Yes, we crave more, and yes, we want what Leinster currently have. But all this does is fire our own desire even more.
I can remember Lawrence Dallaglio saying that England’s 2003 RWC would not have happened had the players not tasted the most bitter disappointment in previous years. The factor that pushed England across the line was the desperation of not wanting that feeling again.
Our boys have every reason to keep their heads up and walk tall. Far more than this, they have every reason already to be looking forward to next season. The signs are good — the vast majority of the major players are staying and the squad is being bolstered further. With Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe returning to the fold and Jared Payne returning from injury to add cutting edge to the backline, the squad will arguably be in an even stronger position to challenge next season.
With greater time will come greater reflection. When everything settles and players and supporters have a proper chance to look back, I have no doubt that we will all say with a united voice, ‘What a season, let’s do it all over again, only better’. It has been a super season and Ulster Rugby is on the march.
As I once heard the former Ulster coach, Alan Solomons, say - ‘The future’s bright, the future’s white’.