I have watched and witnessed many rugby contests which have entertained, enthralled, shocked and surprised. Yet, since hanging up my boots, I have never found myself so emotionally involved in a game as Ulster’s epic clash with Munster last Sunday.
The atmosphere was crackling with intensity and the tension was unbearable. It felt like the longest match ever, but maybe that had something to do with the fact that I seemed to count every second on the clock over the last 30 minutes.
Why was the game so charged with emotion? One outstanding reason for this was that our expectation levels were higher than ever.
On paper, Ulster looked like a side that had the potential to take Munster — the best XV ever to leave Belfast — but plenty of quality sides have arrived in Limerick in the same fine fettle only to leave with ambitions dashed.
While rugby skill and nous have contributed much, the greatest undermining factor has been the overwhelming collective will of the Munster players.
In describing Ulster’s performance, I used the expression that Ulster had ‘out-Munstered Munster’.
By this I meant that Munster had been beaten by the collective will of 15 men wearing white. Right from the start Ulster meant business and ruthlessly hunted the result.
They produced the intensity and ferocity in the physical exchanges which knocked Munster out of their stride and forced uncharacteristic mistakes. Sustained pressure takes its toll no matter how good your home record or Heineken Cup pedigree.
The senior men fronted up and contributed the necessary composure and control, while the young guns rose to the occasion.
None more so than Craig Gilroy. We have had glimpses of his potential — footwork, balance and speed all suggesting real attacking ability — but every aspect came together in his try. Gilroy has quietly been growing and developing throughout the season, but like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, he has emerged into the light with the most dramatic announcement. He spread his wings and flew.
Attack counted for the first 30 minutes, but what took place from then on almost defied belief. The day was a crowning victory for defence coach Jonny Bell. The players combined heads and hearts.
Trust in the defensive system and each other provided the foundations, while the most stubborn refusal to submit was the cement that glued it all together.
It shows how tight the margins are and the quality of Munster that on the one occasion that the system was compromised, Munster struck back with the Simon Zebo score.
Nevertheless, around the fringes Ulster’s forwards dominated the tight exchanges, Darren Cave and Paddy Wallace made telling tackles in midfield, while the back three were composed and in control.
Every now and again Stephen Ferris did something which sent out the message ‘Not while I’m around!’.
The Ulster pack is blessed with quality throughout, but it would not be quite the same without Ferris. He symbolises the indomitable Ulster spirit.
At times Munster enjoyed over 90 per cent possession, but the inability to convert this into more points was an indictment of the blunt nature of their attack, relying more on individual effort.
At 19 points up we all knew that Munster would come back. This is a team and rugby culture which does not lie down.
Neither, however, does Ulster. This is a side that has learned from its past experiences. I can remember Lawrence Dallaglio describing how England’s victory in the 2003 World Cup would not have happened had the team not experienced dark moments and bitter disappointments along the way.
They were integral to the success. In the same way, Sunday may not have been possible had it not been for the quarter-final loss against the Saints last year or defeat in Clermont.
What drove the desire to not repeat similar mistakes was the desperation to avoid those same crushing emotions. Ulster have emerged as a stronger group of players.
Last week I wrote that Ulster had the self-belief, the experience, the doggedness, the gamebreakers, the skill and the finishers to come away from Thomond Park victorious. The players ticked every one of those boxes. Exciting times and there is more to come.