The pairing of Ulster with Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in Milton Keynes on Sunday has been a mixed blessing for Roger Wilson.
The former Ulster No 8 was pleased to see his old team mates in the knockout stages of the competition after 12 years of toil, but it wasn’t long before his phone lit up with more ticket requests than he could possibly handle.
“I believe I’m up to 30 requests now from back home and they’ve come from absolutely everywhere, but it just goes to show how much this game means to everyone,” he said.
Being a key member of a Northampton side brings relative fame in a quiet English provincial town where the rugby team is the main attraction. In the restaurant where we are meeting, two young Saints supporters on a neighbouring table gawk at Wilson and ask their dad for confirmation that they are sitting beside their team’s towering No 8.
After two years, Wilson has seamlessly settled into life in the East Midlands and rarely goes home, but he still can’t help looking out for the results of his old club.
Wilson understands the importance of Sunday’s game to Ulster supporters. In 1999, he caught the packed train down to Dublin with his parents to see Ulster clinch the European Cup in front of thousands of delirious fans.
Warm and erudite, Wilson easily recalls memories of a day that nobody from Ulster will ever forget.
“I remember I was really sick that day, but there was no way I was going to miss it. To have the whole of Dublin filled with Ulster flags and to win it in the way they did, it was just an incredible day that I’ll never forget.”
He is also able to easily empathise with Ulster supporters who have been starved of any glimmer of European success for over a decade. Season after season, Wilson toiled in Ulster teams that often promised much, but generally delivered little.
“It just never really seemed to go right for us in European campaigns, I’m honestly not sure why. It was frustrating. We had good players the whole time I was there, but something just didn’t click.
“The objective for all of us every season was to progress from the group stages, but unfortunately for me it just never happened.”
Two years ago, Wilson decided to leave Ulster. He had lived in Belfast his whole life apart from a brief two-year stint at Dublin University that was ended by the offer of a full-time contract with his home province. Unexpectedly and suddenly he began to hanker for a change of scenery.
“For a couple of years things were going quite badly at Ulster and certain players like myself felt that change wasn’t happening quickly enough. Within the Ulster branch there was probably a bit of a lack of direction from the top down, although I can see now how much that’s been rectified under David Humphreys.”
Although Northampton could never claim to be a vibrant metropolis, Wilson has thrived in the fresh environment it has offered him off the rugby field.
“I have to say I’m massively happy here and very settled. It gave me a fresh start which I needed. I’ve got to be careful with how I say this but Belfast can be a more gossipy place, you always feel you’ve got to be more careful about what you do or say there, whereas in England people just don’t care as much.”
Once Wilson decided to leave Ulster, he didn’t feel the need to look back across the Irish Sea. In the past year, he has only returned home once, to see his former club beat Biarritz at Ravenhill. Yet, he admits that playing against his former team will add an edge to the game.
“It’s always an interesting one when you come up against old players and friends. It will add a different spin to the game. Once the whistle goes you’ve got to be professional and get on with the game, but from my experiences of both supporters, I know the atmosphere is going to be incredible and I can’t wait.”
The quarter-final will also take an interesting twist for Wilson when he comes up against his former school coach Brian McLaughlin in Milton Keynes.
Wilson won Schools’ Cup medals with McLaughlin in both 1998 and 2000 in dominant RBAI sides. He admits that this is the first time that he has thought about playing against McLaughlin and remembers a driven coach even at school.
“I remember he was pretty intense as a schools coach, but then that’s why his teams were so good, you were drilled really well in the basics and it’s good to see him continue to do so well with Ulster.”
After starting his professional career when he was barely out of his teens, Wilson admits that rugby sometimes can feel like a routine. But at age 29, he is edging closer to veteran status in the game and he realises that a quarter final tie against Ulster is something to enjoy and cherish.
“I still think I have a good few seasons left in me, but I know how short this career is so when games like this come you’ve really got to make sure you take it in and relish the experience.”