Heineken Cup: Players ready to follow up heroes of ‘99
If you can give a positive answer to the question, “Do you remember where you were when..?” your response affirms the historical importance of that particular event and the profound effect it had on you.
Were you to put this question to most people in Ulster, you would receive a knowing smile and a nod and it would probably set them off on a long narrative about their ‘1999 experience’.
The Blarney stone may be over 200 miles from Belfast, but we like to talk as well.
For me, it counts as one of the most memorable weekends of my life.
I can remember standing in the West Stand in the old Lansdowne Road — red wig, red jeans, Ulster shirt, and pint of Guinness in either hand.
Do you remember ‘that’ moment? The players came out for the start of the game, jogged around the pitch in a tight group and suddenly lined up side by side.
In front of an adoring sea of red, they linked hands and saluted the crowd.
It truly was a moment of sporting ecstasy and it offered a rare sensation — complete and utter certainty that Ulster would win. The crowd knew it, the Ulster players knew it, and the opposition knew it.
I may not quite share the same level of confidence 13 years on but, nevertheless, I do believe that Ulster can win this game for several reasons.
Firstly, self-belief. We have seen it throughout this season’s campaign and, even in the midst of a below-par performance in the semi-finals.
It was a key ingredient in being able to close out the game against Edinburgh.
Secondly, rugby ability. Ulster have ability in every aspect of the game, whether set-piece, patterns, phase-play, defence or strikepower.
Thirdly, experience. On the pitch, key players in key positions have been in high pressure situations before, offering strong leadership and composure in the heat of battle.
Off the pitch, the likes of David Humphreys and Jonny Bell give a sense of history and continuity. Captain and Man of the Match respectively, they really know what it’s all about, what it took to win — additional support.
Finally, this Ulster team has something a bit special about it. I’m not sure how best to describe it – character, resolve, dogged will to win, heroism? This means that they are up for the scrap and will not back down.
Of course, what makes the Heineken Cup final such an intriguing contest is that Leinster possess all these same attributes. They rightly enter the final as hot favourites and will test every ounce of Ulster’s rugby ability and mental strength.
The current champions are a complete side, shaped by the most innovative coach in Europe. Yet, there was an element of good fortune to their victory over Clermont, a side that Ulster respect but do not fear.
The underdog tag will suit Ulster but, in reality, I’m not sure it will make that much difference.
Having navigated the strange semi-final pressure, Ulster can now simply give it their all —nothing to lose, all to gain. For Leinster, the carrot is a place in history as the best
Heineken Cup side ever. Not an insubstantial incentive.
Yet, the majority of their players have already won the Cup which offers plenty of potential reassurance. Result? From that position of security they can also just go for it.
It augurs well for a high quality, high tempo and dramatic final.
What is on offer? Well, Ulster is proud of its sporting rugby heroes — Willie John McBride, Jack Kyle, Mike Gibson are among the true greats of the game.
It has also punched above its weight in other arenas — Best, Mary Peters and the golfing triumvirate of McDowell, Clarke and McIlroy immediately come to mind.
It would put smiles on faces and further galvanise the sport. Role models become heroes become historical figures.
Having the opportunity to do something extraordinary in sport does not come along very often.
How many people get a shot at creating their own place in history? It will take courage, ability, clarity of thought, discipline and a powerful sense of purpose.
Can Ulster win this game? Yes. For the players, it is time to finish the job. The rest of us will be happy to say once again, ‘I was there’.