Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

It’s a tough climb but summit in sight for Ulster

John Afoa (right) is closed down by Calum Clark

Ulster's display against Northampton Saints underlined the extent of their on-going improvement.

Rather than some meteoric rise this is a carefully mapped-out process in which they are moving steadily upwards.

Check the boxes: unable to win in England? Sorted. Unable to qualify for the knock-out phase? Sorted. Unable to go beyond the quarter-final? Sorted. Able to reach the final? Sorted.

If, two years ago, anyone had suggested Ulster might be good enough to conquer Europe, he would have been dismissed as a nutcase. No-one would sneer now.

Richhill man Geoff Chambers is a mountaineer who, in May 2011, achieved his ambition by conquering Everest. In an interview five years earlier, he had assured me he would do it, but that it would take time and hard work.

Climbers plan their routes, make meticulous preparations and surround themselves with personnel and equipment of the calibre required. It’s costly and setbacks are inevitable.

Ulster, too, have planned, prepared and recruited for an assault on the pinnacle. I might not be this year; undoubtedly captain Johann Muller’s broken arm is a real blow, given his exceptional leadership.

But Ulster coped when they were forced to leave Stephen Ferris at base camp, moving on from a setback which in the not too distant past would have seen them abandon the attempt.

Remember, too, that Muller had exited almost half an hour before his engine-room partner, Dan Tuohy, bagged Ulster’s bonus point fourth try — at which stage they were down to 14 men.

Beating Bath at The Rec in a pool-stage match in January 2010 finally saw them leave base camp. Beating them again the following season took them to camp two. Beating Munster in the quarter-final at Thomond Park in April 2012 saw them make camp three.

And while defeat in the Twickenham final was a setback, it was one from which they have learnt much. Beating Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens has brought the peak back into full view.

The level to which they have already climbed is impressive, but be in no doubt as to this Ulster side’s determination — and ability — to go on and make the summit.