Heineken Cup: Fitzpatrick feels Ulster can emulate heroes of 1999
Justin Fitzpatrick was one of the Ulster heroes in the European Cup-winning team of 1999.
Twelve years on the memories are still fresh in the former Ireland prop's mind, and he believes that the current crop of Ulster players could emulate the achievements of Harry Williams’ side.
“What we did that year will always stay in the memory. It was a momentous season for us and we are proud of what we achieved,” recalled the Dungannon coach.
“There are a few similarities with this season and 1999.
“We didn't perform away at Toulouse that year, but Toulouse went and lost at Ebbw Vale just as Biarritz have lost in Aironi, so they will be nervous about coming to Ravenhill.
“The first half performance in Biarritz was good so they know what Ulster can deliver,” he explained.
Ulster topped Pool Three in 1999 after Toulouse's shock defeat in Wales and the two were pitted together at Ravenhill in the quarter-final.
“As a team we went into every game in 1999 as massive underdogs, we had nothing to lose and with every game confidence grew — it took on a life of its own and it was a rollercoaster ride.”
Fitzpatrick and his team mates accounted for Toulouse 15-13 to set up a semi-final against Stade Francais and the greatest occasion Ravenhill has witnessed.
“We had played the best two teams in Europe and the Stade game was a highlight of my career.
“Ravenhill has a special ambience any time but that day, with 20,000 people there, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand and it inspired us to fight tooth and nail,” he said.
Ulster won 33-27 in the winter sunshine and the game is remembered for a certain try by David Humphreys.
“In any game you need a bit of luck or a bit of magic. We had been under pressure and Stade had a scrum in our 22. The ball came back on our side, Wardy (Andy Ward) hit Sheldon (Coulter) and he put Humph away to score and then we started to feel the belief,” said Fitzpatrick.
Beating Stade set up a final encounter at Lansdowne Road against Colomiers, and Fitzpatrick feels the occasion was better than the rugby.
“I'd played at Lansdowne Road for Ireland many times but the final was special with the colour and 50,000 people shouting for Ulster.
“It was the hardest game for us. We had started the tournament as rank outsiders and Colomiers weren't considered to be one of the French aristocrats but they were a good side.
“Having beaten Toulouse twice and Stade Francais, people were thinking the job was done.
“In the final it is just important to win, everybody is afraid of making mistakes and that doesn't lend itself to free flowing rugby.
“I remember the result and the journey but I have more colourful memories of other games,” he added.
Ulster haven't reached the knock-out stages since lifting the cup and Fitzpatrick feels they have been unlucky on occasion.
“You need to get the rub of the green or a bit of luck at key moments in the campaign. We got it with Ebbw Vale beating Toulouse and on another day Humph could have been dragged down on the halfway line instead of scoring that try against Stade.
“Ulster have had a bit of luck with Aironi beating Biarritz and I've got a good feeling about today.
“Once you get to the quarter-finals anything can happen — it's four 80-minute games of knock-out rugby and the favourites at the start of the tournament don't always win it,” he said.
Fitzpatrick also plied his trade in France with Castres and has the perfect insight into the French mentality on the road.
“French teams don't like travelling and they don't like leaving France but Biarritz have a lot of players that have played in Britain and at other European clubs so maybe that isn't as much a factor as it was 10 years ago,” he said.
“They won't be looking forward to coming to Ravenhill and that will be in the back of their mind.”