Time plays tricks with your mind, as it certainly does not feel like 12 years since Ulster last contested a European Cup quarter-final. Was it really so long ago?
For players and supporters alike, this is what professional rugby is all about. Club rugby on the biggest stage and making it through to the last eight suggests that Ulster is somewhere near the elite level of European rugby. However, the performance on Sunday will confirm where the team sits against its competition.
Second place in the Magners League suggests that it should not be in doubt — we are there. However, if you compare the intensity and quality of the Munster-Leinster derby at the weekend with the nature of Ulster’s last three performances, you could be forgiven for thinking that the gap is as yawning as ever.
Note, I am talking about performance rather than results. This is not because I don’t like winning. Professional rugby is all about winning and Ulster have done magnificently well to eke out wins in the last three weeks.
Lying second in the Magners League is a fantastic achievement and leaves Ulster well-placed to make the play-offs. Consequently, the players should be congratulated on their character and will to win.
However, these were magnificent wins but not magnificent performances. The bottom line is that if Ulster perform as they did last Friday evening, they will lose and potentially lose heavily to the Saints.
You simply cannot miss that many first time tackles and expect a side containing Foden, Ashton et al not to punish you. That said, I truly believe that Ulster has a real chance of coming away from Milton Keynes with a victory.
If the players and coaches need any added inspiration they simply have to look to Ireland’s demolition of England on St Patrick’s weekend. Like England, Northampton Saints are being talked up massively. This is due to their double thumping of Wasps and Sale — two wins with bonus points and bucketfuls of tries.
So the hype is going through the roof, and likewise the Northampton self-belief. Admittedly, their England contingent has added serious presence to the team’s collective performance. We have all seen Hartley, Lawes, Wood, Foden and Ashton play extremely well at times, but the Irish players did not care a jot about that and neither should Ulster.
You need to add a generous spoonful of perspective to Northampton’s recent performances. Wasps and Sale are not good Premiership sides — the league table reflects this.
Northampton have not played a team with as much talent and character as Ulster for a long while. Therefore, if the Ulster needle is sharp enough, then that bubble of self-belief can explode.
Ulster must ensure that the Northampton team never gets a chance to settle. This starts through outstanding and suffocating defence. While defence was poor last Friday, undoubtedly, the focus of the Heineken Cup will ensure that the intensity will be back.
When the concentration is fully primed, Ulster have an excellent defence, both at set-piece and scramble.
The scrum looked a lot more impressive with the return of BJ Botha, while Ulster should, at least, be able to achieve parity in the lineouts. Based on these foundations, throughout the season we have witnessed attacking rugby and tries, the like of which have not been seen at Ravenhill for quite a few years.
Moreover, the one great benefit of the way recent matches have gone, is that there will be no lack of Ulster self-belief should they be in the game as it enters the final quarter.
Finally, playing at 2pm on a Sunday in Milton Keynes is no home game for Northampton.
Ulster’s supporters may be fewer in number but I am certain that they will make more noise than their opposite numbers and make it feel as if Ulster have the 16th man. As witnessed against Toulouse, Stade Francais and Colomiers in 1999, we love a good day out in the knockout stages of European rugby.
For Ulster to win, performance has to be at the heart of the 80 minutes. If the players can individually and collectively employ the same ‘shock and awe’ tactics that Ireland produced at the Aviva and also take their chances, then the players can return home victorious.
Time for the supporters to stand up, and even more importantly, the players.