It will come as scant consolation to Ulster’s players and supporters that Sunday’s match against the Northampton Saints was the best Heineken Cup quarterfinal of the weekend.
A sun-kissed afternoon, thousands of Ulster supporters mixing happily with each other and opposing Saints fans, a stadium that belied its outward appearance by contributing to a phenomenal atmosphere within, and most importantly a fabulously-contested quality game of rugby.
What we, as supporters, are most proud of is that our players turned up. The pack fought hard, the collective defence was outstanding, and Ulster’s backline showed greater skill and creative ball-handling ability than their opposite numbers.
In short, it was one of the best performances of the season, and despite the obvious disappointment of defeat, we could not have asked for any more from the players in terms of effort.
For the vast majority of the game, it was a battle royal between two evenly-matched sides and the intensity of the collisions was ferocious.
The game demonstrated two main principles. Firstly, in the cauldron of big-pressure knockout rugby, you have to take your chances. Secondly, it is rarely an act of genius that decides the result, but rather individual mistakes that tip the balance in one side’s favour.
In the midst of a committed and skilful performance, both these aspects proved decisive.
Andrew Trimble’s early fumble set up the scrum that led to Soane Tonga’uiha’s shock try. At the other end, a penalty given away by Tom Wood allowed Ulster the opportunity to set up camp deep in the Northampton 22, and an attacking lineout was the foundation for Trimble to go from zero to hero with his own touchdown.
Alas, Adam D’Arcy did not have the opportunity to redress the balance after his fumbled catch meant Simon Danielli missing out on an almost certain try.
Yet, for me, D’Arcy’s redemption came in his efforts before this. He had an outstanding game and played a pivotal role along with his two wingers in outplaying the Saints back three for much of the match. Unfortunately though, the Saints had the last laugh.
Brian McLaughlin deserves much credit as his one big selection dilemma absolutely paid off. What a game for Chris Henry, who noticeably added value in his ball-carrying, defence and support play.
His rugby is infused with skill and intelligence — on one occasion, close to the fielding of a high ball, Henry deliberately chose not to touch or catch the ball as he realised that he was in front of the initial catcher in an offside position. Smart play, as in the heat of the moment every ounce of his intuition must have been screaming for him to claim the ball.
There is no question that Northampton’s forwards upped their performance after halftime, and while Tonga’uiha and Mujati were largely kept at bay in terms of individual ball-carrying, Ulster struggled to cope with the collective effort of the Saints pack.
Missing the opportunity to level the scores and then, instead, watching Steven Myler slot a penalty which took the lead to 10 points, was a psychological blow from which Ulster struggled to recover.
The scrum, which was already creaking, disintegrated, and the virus then spread to the lineout, which had operated so well in the first half.
Given how close the two sides were, a 10-point cushion was massive. The pressure even told on the calm and composed Ruan Pienaar and his halfback partner Ian Humphreys with a knock-on and overcooked kick respectively.
Both players had the upper hand on their opposite numbers and showed moments of real class and magic. These tiny errors were simply symptoms of pressure as was a rising penalty count which helped Myler to put the Saints into a winning position.
But it would be absolutely wrong to dwell on the negative, because for the vast majority of the game these were mere blemishes in an otherwise excellent performance.
What a game it was and while the better side over 80 minutes won, had Ulster managed to stay close going into the final 10 or 15 minutes I am confident that the team would have had it in them for a final push.
It was thrilling stuff, a hugely disappointing result, but I have no hesitation in saying that I was proud to be an Ulster supporter.