So, after all the crystal-ball gazing, scenarios and permutations, we finally know where Ulster’s European path leads next. Or we will when Saracens decide where they actually want to locate the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
In a rugby world where clubs try to establish and work off a fortress mentality, relative to the rest Saracens are a nomadic bunch. Their toughness comes from a rugged self-belief and competitive mentality rather than relying to any great extent on a 16th man.
Of course, a home quarter-final would have been the preferred option, but away to Saracens does not present an unbeatable challenge. Despite the hiccough to Northampton Saints at Ravenhill, the draw is just reward for displays of enormous character and none more so than in Castres at the weekend.
That the match was eminently forgettable is immaterial. The defining quality was resilience, a refusal to never give up and a desire to work for each other and keep up the pressure.
In this respect, Chris Henry was an inspiration.
In last week’s column I stated that the stand-in captain needed to be inspirational and he stepped up when it was needed most.
Of all the Ulster players to come through the Heineken Cup with their reputations enhanced, surely Henry has been the most outstanding.
So many international sides these days talk about the need for a genuine number seven. English rugby is obsessed with the subject. Not so long ago, one would have doubted that this description could have applied to Henry.
However, through his competitiveness at the breakdown, support play, ball-carrying and intelligence and precision at how to slow opposition ball down, he has seen off any remaining doubters and in the process copper-fastened the green number seven shirt.
Even now, some might question his top end speed, but one of the all time greats, Richie McCaw, is no longer a greyhound, but is nonetheless indispensable to his team.
I can remember being told by my father, himself a former flanker, that ‘any openside worth his salts should be caught offside once or twice in a game otherwise he’s not doing his job properly’.
I only noticed Henry being caught the once, but continually he managed to compete and disrupt — according to the sage’s criteria then he did his job well.
Form with province should — and will be — rewarded with selection for Ireland. If Henry has a good Six Nations, his talents and abilities could even see him rewarded with a Lions spot in the summer. For many outside observers he is playing that well. But that is for us to speculate — he cannot afford to start thinking like that and simply needs to focus on his rugby. There is a lot of important rugby ahead.
With an indifferent lineout and having to soak up a lot of tackles it looked like the Castres battering might finally break through.
The defensive slip by Ruan Pienaar in the first half showed just how tight the margins are at this level.
It opened up a little bit of space out wide, but there was still much to do and Max Evans flick pass deserved the quality try that it created.
Far too often Ulster coughed up the ball when in decent field position, but particularly in the second half we did see glimpses of what the team is capable of with some excellent passages of interplay between forwards and backs.
These gained enough ground and caused sufficient problems to rock Castres, while Ulster’s fitness came through and defensive structure stayed intact.
The scrum was baffling. As a former winger, I know that I am always going to struggle, but just when I think that I am able to work out some of the nuances, a referee goes and confuses me all over again.
In the first half surely Ulster were so in the ascendancy that even more penalties should have been awarded? Nigel Owens left me baffled and I’m back to square one.
Answers on a postcard please.
Forget the performance, victory over Castres in France represented another milestone in the history of this group of players in the Heineken Cup. Another border has been breached, another layer added to the now rich seam of experience running through the team.
Above all, this victory, which finally saw Ulster win in France for the first time in the Heineken Cup was built on self-belief.
This will provide the foundation for the rest of their competition.