Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Ulster have to believe in themselves

It is Shakespeare’s 448th birthday this week and, with Ulster looking ahead to their date with destiny at the Aviva stadium, the pool of potentially inspirational quotes is deep.

After the monumental effort at Thomond Park, the most obvious might be King Henry V’s ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’, because another battle looms large.

Ever since the quarter-final win, we have been holding our breaths that Ulster would get to this point physically intact, confident of mind and ready to go.

Physically there have a few skipped heartbeats but the critical mass of the team is still in place.

Whatever team takes the place on Saturday there will be sufficient experience and skill within the XV to win the game.

At the same time, one cannot underestimate the absence of John Afoa as he is an integral part of the set-piece, ball-carrying and defensive efforts.

But Brian McLaughlin and his men have known for a while that he would not be involved and will have prepared accordingly.

In fact, in a way, it might just galvanise and sharpen the Ulster minds even more — yes, it is positive spin, but an element of doubt adds to the nerves and rules out any chance of taking things lightly.

For supporters, expectations have been raised to a level not seen since the European Cup final victory in 1999.

So often since then, Ulster have entered major European Cup games as underdogs. Even in 1999 Ulster were really only fancied as favourites in the final match against Colomiers. Maybe this is the reason that this Saturday’s game has a very similar feel to 1999.

It is akin to a trip down memory lane. A similar level of expectation and belief will accompany supporters as they descend once again on Lansdowne Road.

That day 13 years ago Ulster started well, built a lead and never gave Colomiers a sniff. Can the players repeat history in 2012?

Certainly, being favourites brings with it a completely different type of pressure, but somehow I get the feeling that in the players’ minds they travelled down to Munster with that same mentality.

They knew that if they played near to their potential they could win the game. In their own heads, they were favourites, so maybe not as much has changed as many think.

Have no doubts, Edinburgh will be dangerous. Michael Bradley is the king of maximising scarce resources and he deserves enormous credit for generating a self-belief that is currently missing from the Scottish national team.

At his disposal Bradley has quality players who have nothing to lose and revel in shaping unlikely victories.

The strength and threat of their game is based on taking 50:50 decisions so why would they play any differently? It will be a much different type of defensive challenge for Ulster — not quite as directly confrontational as Munster.

Indeed, the defensive decisions might just be that bit more difficult to make. Nevertheless, Ulster have got to get those decisions right.

Having come so far along this path, beating Tigers and Clermont at home, performing so heroically in France and then the Thomond triumph, I cannot see the will of the Ulster players allowing itself to be broken.

There is sufficient experience in the team to be calm and composed and know what to do in the cauldron of the occasion.

Often big pressure games are more about which group of players can keep their cool and do the basics well rather than moments of creative genius. This team believes in itself and realises the level of self-discipline required — this was one of the key determinants in the Thomond Park victory.

Despite Leinster’s victory last Friday, there were sufficient pointers to suggest that Ulster’s confidence should not be dented. Had the kicking been better and turnovers in the opposition 22 avoided, the result might have been a lot different and this against the Heineken Cup champions.

Saturday will be about doing the basics right, playing one’s own game with an organised and aggressive defence, and working every second towards the submission of the opponents.

I am envious of the position in which the players find themselves. Whatever impressive achievements sit on their rugby CVs, for some even World Cups or Grand Slams, Saturday will be a unique experience — a semi-final in the Heineken Cup in front of 50,000 of your home supporters.

What a privileged bunch of players to have this experience and what an opportunity.

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