Heineken Cup: Ulster can do it, just like my boys in 1999
Ask Harry Williams for the finest moment of his career and he gives you a date — January 30, 1999.
That day is etched on his mind and that of every Ulster supporter.
It’s when Ulster became Kings of Europe, hammering French side Colomiers 21-6 at Lansdowne Road.
Twelve years on, Harry smiles when recalling that final and the drama-filled matches leading up to it — the semi-final success over Stade Francais and the epic quarter-final victory against Toulouse.
That was the last time Ulster played in the last eight of the European Cup.
Sunday will be the next when Brian McLaughlin’s class of 2011 take on Northampton in what promises to be a dramatic and nail-biting affair.
Williams, the legendary coach of the 1999 heroes, will watch it on television in his Groomsport home.
“I think it will be a really good game and I'd say our chances are 50/50,” states Williams.
“We have a stronger squad than ever before and the most pleasing thing is the number of young local players coming through. Northampton are a very good side but Ulster are a very good side too and when they are on top form they are a match for anyone.”
That was the case back in the 1998-99 campaign when Ulster swept all before them to claim one of this country’s most famous sporting triumphs.
Williams, of course, will always be remembered for that, but what is often forgotten is that he had a successful spell as Ulster coach long before conquering Europe, guiding the province to four Inter-pro titles between 1987 and 1991.
He says: “That was some team then — there was (Willie) Anderson, (Jimmy) McCoy, (David) Irwin, (Trevor) Ringland, (Keith) Crossan, (Philip) Matthews, (Nigel) Carr — the names go on and on.
“The team almost ran itself and there was just a bit of input from me here and there.”
Feeling that coaches have a shelf life in one place, Williams moved on, coaching the Ireland A team and working with various clubs as the 21st century approached.
Watching the ferries coming in on Belfast Lough, he revealed: “I was thinking about giving up coaching at that stage and then the Ulster job came along again.
“I was talking to one of my friends involved in the Ulster Branch and I said to him ‘if they want me to give it a go I will’, and that's what happened. There was no interview or anything like that.
“It was the beginning of 1998 and I took it on a part-time basis. They got me to put a team together and try to put structures in place. We eventually got together a squad and I started on a full-time basis in July 1998.
“All the odds were against us. We didn't have a particularly big squad — we had 19 full-timers and six part-timers. I do look back on that season and wonder how we achieved what we did.”
Here’s how — Ulster finished top of a group containing Toulouse, Edinburgh Reivers and Ebbw Vale.
The way the seedings worked out, Ulster faced Toulouse again in the quarter-finals with Kiwi Andy Ward’s wife due to give birth to their son Zac around the same time.
Ward was a hugely influential figure for Ulster, but understandably wanted to be in hospital to see his first child come into the world.
He started the game, but didn’t finish it, receiving a police escort once his wife went into labour.
“Toulouse at Ravenhill in the quarter-final — that was the Andy Ward game. It was intense,” says Williams, recalling that the battle started before the teams got out on to the pitch.
“With the geography of Ravenhill at the time there were two big dressing rooms — one for the home team and one for the visitors — but we decided to put them in the two smaller changing rooms under the stand so that they couldn't all get together before the game. Maybe it was a bit of gamesmanship.
“With regard to Andy Ward's situation, to be honest I was torn between what Andy needed and what the team needed.
“In the end we got the best of both worlds. Andy got to start, meaning the team was at full strength, and then later on he was given licence to go to the birth of his child. With the help of Sir Ronnie Flanagan there was a car standing by to take Andy to the hospital when the time came.
“Another big moment that night was a try-saving tackle from David Humphreys. Where Humphreys (pictured) came from to make it I'll never know.
“He was quick at the best of times, but he had extra speed in his legs that night.”
After the edge of the seat |15-13 win over Toulouse came an equally compelling 33-27 victory over Stade Francais, watched by 20,000 passionate fans at Ravenhill.
Williams says: “There was a capacity requirement from ERU
(European Rugby Union) and we brought in portable stands. If my memory serves me right Stade Francais were not keen to come to Belfast and they sent legal people to check the numbers in the ground and make sure everything was safe.
“They were doing everything they could to get the game away from Ravenhill which all added spice to the build-up.
“The boys needed very little motivation when they found out about that.”
And so to the final, when the whole of Northern Ireland seemed to be at Lansdowne Road — in reality the crowd figure was 49,000.
Harry says: “It was a wonderful time. One of the highlights was looking out from my hotel room on the morning of the match and seeing all the Ulster fans on the road leading up to the ground. There was a sea of red and white. It was an incredible sight.
“When we got on the bus instead of turning right to Lansdowne Road, the bus driver turned left and en route took us past Beggars Bush pub.
“We stopped there and the crowd was unbelievable. They were pressing against the bus, which could hardly move and I looked round and I'll not tell you his name, but one of the hard men of the team, was sitting there with tears rolling down his cheeks. It was highly emotional — there was no motivation required when the boys saw that.
“The game itself wasn't the greatest European Cup final ever, but the Ulster fans didn’t care. The French were like rabbits caught in the headlights.
“They had some really good players but we just steamrollered them.
“The BBC commentator Jim Neilly says that the reason why the Heineken Cup has become so big is down to Ulster. Before we won it there was a feeling the competition was dying and wasn't of interest to anyone.
“Then when we won, it brought romance to the Cup and has gone from strength to strength since. It’s one of the best sporting tournaments in the world now.”
And with eight teams left this year, Ulster are still in it.
The last time our boys won a European Cup quarter-final, Harry Williams went home and said to his wife “I think our name's on this.”
Hopefully Brian McLaughlin will be having a similar conversation after Sunday’s clash with Northampton.