Heineken Cup: This is the best Ulster squad I’ve played in, says Paddy Wallace
Ulster's two longest-serving players, Paddy Wallace and Nigel Brady, have been around long enough to be able to make comparisons between the way things were and how they are now.
They have seen a total transformation in fortunes and attitudes in the past few seasons.
Gone is the players’ disillusionment, their sense of frustration and hopelessness, the lack of direction or leadership, the fear that Ulster were condemned to be poor relations totally eclipsed by the success and silverware collections of Munster and Leinster.
No longer. Now, instead of gloom and despondency, there is optimism and belief. Ulster have rediscovered their self-esteem and ambition, with the triumphant march to Saturday’s Heineken Cup final providing proof of a club moving in the right direction.
“I think Ulster have assembled the best squad that Nigel and I have been involved in,” Wallace offered when asked to explain what has happened.
“It was probably going to take a year or two for the guys who have come in to settle into the squad and to life here, but I think that has happened and we are seeing the benefits of it.”
Brady’s delight at recent events shone through when he said: “It’s incredible. Paddy and I have been here a long time and for a lot of it Ulster just didn’t appear to be making very much progress, if any.
“Every year in Europe we were struggling, trying to get out of our group and not making it. Meanwhile Leinster and Munster were doing really well, so we were envious as well as frustrated.
“But now we’re getting a turn.
“We’re in a European Cup final and in with a chance of winning it. Bearing in mind where we’re coming from and where we were not very long ago, that’s incredible.”
The pair agree that their lowest ebb came in late 2007, in the latter days of Mark McCall’s reign as Ulster’s head coach. Two seasons earlier, in May 2006, Ulster had won the Celtic League and looked set to drive on.
But 2006-07 season saw Ulster slide back rather than push forward and in November 2007 they hit rock bottom when Gloucester crushed them 32-14 in the Heineken Cup at Ravenhill.
“We got stuffed in that game,” Wallace recalls. “The guys off the pitch weren’t happy and behind the scenes it just wasn’t a very good camp.
“That coincided with Mark getting the sack, so all in all it was a pretty bad time.”
Brady’s recollection was: “There just wasn’t any sense of direction at all. Everybody wanted to do well, but it just wasn’t working out. We were all over the place.
“When you look at the way things are now, there’s just no comparison. I’d say the improvement is down to a combination of factors — recruitment, the culture within the squad, the belief that’s there. Things that just weren’t there before are in place now.”
Wallace highlighted the difference by saying: “Every team wants to be involved in competitive matches at this time of year — playing games that matter in May.
“In those dark days I couldn’t have seen that.”
- Tournament organisers have announced that both showpiece European club finals will be held in Dublin next year.
The Aviva Stadium will host the 2013 Heineken Cup final on May 18, with the RDS staging next season's Amlin Challenge Cup final the night before. Dublin has never previously staged the Amlin Challenge Cup final.