Dick: Ulster almost finished article
A hero of yesteryear has given Ulster a very definite thumbs up ahead of tomorrow night’s Magners League showdown with Leinster at the RDS (8pm).
Dick Milliken of Bangor, Ulster, Ireland and Lions fame has no doubt that Brian McLaughlin’s men are heading in the right direction — at speed.
The centre who played in all four Tests against the Springboks on the Lions’ never-to-be-forgotten 1974 tour of South Africa believes Ulster are very close to being the finished article.
“I think Ulster are growing every time they play. They’re becoming more confident,” says the 60-year-old who retired from rugby at the age of 24 after suffering a bad ankle break.
“I think they did very well against Northampton last weekend; if a few things had gone to hand in that match we could be playing in the semi-final of the European Cup.
“So I think they’ll give a very, very good account of themselves against Leinster and it could all come down to who gets their kicking right on the night.
“You’d have to feel that if Leinster put a full-strength side out they would be favourites. In fairness to them, they are very good at the moment because they’re a very well-run team with very good players. And they have a lot of experience.
“But Ulster have really closed the gap so I think Leinster will really take them very seriously — and they’d be right to do that.
“If pressed I’d have to say Leinster by a short head, but Ulster will give them a real fight and, who knows, it could just go our way.”
Today Milliken is teaming up with his Lions midfield partner Sir Ian McGeechan.
As part of Bangor’s 125th anniversary celebrations Bangor are playing Ulster’s European Cup winning heroes of 1999 at Upritchard Park this afternoon.
That triumphant team’s coach, of course, was Harry Williams, this year’s Bangor RFC President.
Tonight the post-match action switches to the Clandeboye Lodge Hotel where guest of honour McGeechan will bare his soul in an interview by Belfast Telegraph rugby columnist Tyrone Howe.
Reflecting on rugby as it was at the time when he and McGeechan were in their prime, Milliken expressed his hopes that the aspects of the game they enjoyed as amateurs do not get swept away by the demands of professionalism. Tellingly, he is pretty optimistic on that score.
“I just hope the old values that were so much part of the game when we were playing are retained. And I’d be confident that they will,” he said.
“I would see David Humphreys quite often and over the years I’ve been quite heavily involved with Jonny Bell. In fact I was instrumental in his move to Northampton when my old friend Ian was coach there. I played a part in getting that sorted out.
“I’m still in pretty regular contact with David so I think I’ve a fair understanding of what’s going on inside Ulster these days and I believe the guys still espouse the game’s values.
“I think they get a lot out of it still. When you get older sometimes you look back and think, ‘It’s not as good as it was in my day’.
“But I’ve got two sons who have played rugby and they’ve had a lot of fun out of it. I think today’s players do, by and large.
“I think David Humphreys, Jonny Bell and these guys have enjoyed it so they’re passing on the benefit of what they have experienced to the younger players under them now.”
The fact that Milliken continues to take so keen an interest in rugby at club, provincial and international level confirms that his love of the game is as passionate as ever. His firm friendship with McGeechan is on-going, too.
“My wife and I were over in Bath for four days last September and I went down to the club to meet Ian,” he reveals.
“I watched them training as they went through their organisation for the next match. Obviously, because Bath were in Ulster’s Heineken Cup group and we were going to be playing them twice, I was particularly interested to see what they were doing. So I got a real insight as to what it’s like at professional level.
“I haven’t become cynical about the game. I continue to watch it closely and still enjoy it enormously.”
So when a man of that pedigree says Ulster are getting better and predicts they are capable of giving Leinster a real run for their money tomorrow night at the RDS, you sit up and take notice.