As Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin was keen to point out in the aftermath of his side’s remarkable 22-16 victory over Munster on Sunday afternoon: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We are in a semi-final, we haven’t won anything at this point.”
But already supporters are drawing parallels between the Class of 2012 and the Ulster side which won rugby’s European Cup in 1999 when they became the first Irish province to do so.
Yes, in the interim, Munster have won it twice (2006 and 2008), as have current holders Leinster (2009 and 2011), but do not lose sight of the fact that Ulster led the way by claiming the title in the fourth season of European Cup action.
Toulouse, Brive and Bath were champions in the first three campaigns in 1996, 1997 and 1998 respectively. And then came Ulster’s turn.
Since then the men of ’99 have enjoyed near-legendary status. Quite right; no-one can deny them the accolades they continue to enjoy 13 years on.
But it is my contention the competition is now much harder to win than was the case when Simon Mason, Sheldon Coulter, Jan Cunningham, Jonny Bell, Andrew Park, captain David Humphreys (pictured), Andy Matchett, Justin Fitzpatrick, Allen Clarke, Rab Irwin, Mark Blair, Gary Longwell, Stephen McKinty, Andy Ward, Tony McWhirter, Stanley McDowell, Gary Leslie and Derek Topping carved out their niche in history.
That is not to belittle those heroes’ achievement, nor does it detract from what they did; it is simply to accept that things now are a lot tougher than in 1999. For if Ulster of today manage to follow in the boot-prints of those above-named immortals, it will be as a result of having overcome obstacles with which their fore-runners never had to contend. Back in ’98/99, English clubs boycotted that season’s competition. There were 16 runners – four pools of four with the top two progressing to the quarter-finals.
Ulster were in Pool 3 with Toulouse, Edinburgh Reivers and Ebbw Vale. Harry Williams’ team topped that group with four wins, a home draw against the Scots and a defeat in France. Ulster finished with nine points, one more than Toulouse. Remarkably, though, their respective for-against points differentials were Ulster +29, Toulouse +131.
Ulster’s reward as pool winners was a home quarter-final against Toulouse whom they had already beaten 29-24 at Ravenhill. They duly repeated the dose, winning a memorable Friday night quarter-final 15-13, whereupon they got lucky with a home semi-final draw against Stade-Francais – and when I say ‘home’, I mean Belfast.
In other words, Ulster’s quarter-final and semi-final matches were at Ravenhill.
Now compare all of that with the current Ulster side’s campaign. Brian McLaughlin’s men had to negotiate a pool of four in which they faced opponents from England, France and Italy. Their English opponents were Leicester Tigers whose Heineken Cup pedigree is awesome; twice champions and the only club ever to achieve back-to-back triumphs, three times runners-up, and a home record which sees them unbeaten in the competition since October 2006. Ulster’s 41-7 rout of Leicester at Ravenhill was the Tigers’ heaviest-ever European defeat.
Their French opponents were mighty Clermont, whose unbeaten home record in the Heineken Cup stretches back to October 2008. They had not lost to visitors in any competition since Biarritz beat them in the domestic league in 2009.
Ulster went down 19-15 at Stade Marcel Michelin on January 21, closer than Munster ran Clermont in 2008 when they lost 25-19 in the pool en route to winning their second Heineken.
And mention of Munster completes the circle, because what Ulster did to the Thomond Terrors was quite remarkable. Munster do not lose Heineken Cup games at their Limerick citadel. Since European competition began in 1995, prior to Sunday they had lost only twice in 17 seasons – 37-32 to Cardiff in 1997 and 10 years later when a Leicester side including Ian Humphreys beat an under-strength line-up 13-6.
Next up for Ulster is a ‘home’ semi-final pairing with Edinburgh on Saturday, April 28 (5.45pm). Not at Ravenhill, but at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. Just call it another challenge.
When Ulster won in 1999, professional rugby was in its infancy. Today it is a fully-formed fact of of life, meaning more matches and ever-intensifying physicality. That is why the challenge facing this side is far greater.
Leicester, Clermont and Munster have provided the hurdles to date and Ulster have got over them, at times playing outstanding rugby. The golden oldies of yesteryear will not begrudge another generation of heroes the applause for having done so.