Euro semi proof I was right to quit Ulster
Three weeks after a gruelling quarter-final victory against Ulster in the Heineken Cup, Northampton No 8 Roger Wilson is still recovering from “one of the toughest club games of my career”.
Meeting former work colleagues after a period of absence is normally a pleasant experience, but for former Ulster stalwart Wilson, the 80 minutes in the blazing sunshine of Milton Keynes was a trial.
“I didn’t enjoy the game at all, mainly because of the pressure of the occasion and the anticipation attached to it,” he said.
“It was also a huge step up in intensity for all of us; I spoke to some of our players in the changing room after the game and they were completely drained.”
Although well acquainted with the Ulster supporters from his time at Ravenhill, Wilson was impressed by the noise they created in the stadium, despite being considerably outnumbered by their Northampton counterparts.
“As a player you normally don’t notice the noise, you’re just so focused on your own game, but the atmosphere that day was incredible.
“As soon as you stepped off the bus you got a sense of the occasion and throughout the warm-ups the noise just grew. The Ulster fans more than matched our fans for noise which isn’t easy.”
Wilson continues to look out for Ulster’s results, and was in a prime position to judge the improvement of the club since his departure.
“A lot of people have said that we had the better forwards and they had the better backs in the quarter-final. I think that’s pretty much spot on.
“The main difference I noticed in this Ulster team is that they make fewer mistakes than when I played. They are constantly improving and are only going to get better with experience.”
Tomorrow, Wilson and his Northampton team-mates are back at their adopted home of Milton Keynes to play Perpignan in the semi-final.
How does it feel to be the first Ulsterman to reach this stage of the competition since 1999?
“You know I only thought about that when you told me. It’s a bit of a strange one. Quite a few people have asked me was I right in leaving Ulster for Northampton and I suppose getting to this stage of the Heineken Cup has shown me that I was absolutely right to take that chance.”
In professional rugby exterior distractions such as atmosphere shouldn’t play a role in the game, but Wilson believes that playing in Milton Keynes will help sustain the Saints’ momentum.
“I think that home advantage is a bit of a factor. If we were going to the south of France playing in front of their supporters, I think that would give them a huge boost. At this level, with two quality teams noise shouldn’t really make much of a difference, but being at home will certainly do us no harm.”
Northampton’s success in the Heineken Cup has given Wilson a rare shop window for the Irish selectors to peek into. Despite being a key component in one of European rugby’s slickest outfits, frustratingly Wilson has been unable to add to his solitary Ireland cap won against Japan in 2005.
“In terms of international selection I’m not holding out too much, my focus has to be with Northampton. If my success there transpires into international recognition I would be delighted, but it’s a slim hope.”
Victory tomorrow would propel Northampton into a European final, potentially against Leinster.
Anticipation in Northampton has been building steadily for weeks and Saints fans are eager to build on the solitary European title won by the club in 2000. Wilson is aware of the responsibility the players nurse in a town where rugby dominates conversation.
“As players we’re really aware of what it all means for the town. The demand for the game is huge and we’ve had hundreds of fans queing for seven or eight hours to get tickets for the semi-final and the excitement is definitely growing. I just hope we can pull off the result for them.”