Ulster Rugby up for the cup
It was one of those comic moments when Ulster coach Mark Anscombe walked into yesterday's weekly press briefing at Ravenhill and, desperate for a coffee, said frustratedly: "No cups?"
"Not since 2006," was the muttered response from a hack. If he heard it, the affable Kiwi was far too smart to respond.
Within moments a clean cup was produced, leading one to wonder if Anscombe might just be able to meet a similar need on the part of the Ulster supporters come the end of the season.
Currently his players are competing on two fronts, the bigger being the Heineken Cup to which Ulster return on Friday night when Montpellier will be the opposition at Ravenhill (8pm).
There are few who would argue that if Ulster play as they can, they are good enough to conquer Europe. However, the frustrating thing about them is that they are inconsistent. Examples? Their meek surrender to Leinster at the RDS on December 28, followed just six days later by an excellent display against Munster, the PRO12 pace-setters.
Anscombe smiles when asked what underlies that inconsistency. "If I had the answer to that I'd be a very rich and successful person," he muses. "It's in all sport, isn't it? Take the Ashes – three months ago it was a one-horse race for the English. Three months later it's a one-horse race for the Australians. Why is that?" he wonders aloud.
"Consistency comes down to preparation and mentality. Fatigue sometimes hits in on cold winter nights during a long season. It's about getting that balance right, keeping your squad challenged, keeping them fresh and keeping the quality of the players on the park that helps bring others along.
"In the big collision game that rugby is today, if you don't have the right attitude you're not worth anything. You've got to have that bit of desire, that keenness to prove something and to win.
"You're going out there to contest against a big man; if you just let that drop you're not going to win. And in professional sport, you don't have to drop your level of performance by a lot to make a major difference.
"It's a fine line. It's not as though you don't care or that you're lackadaisical during the week. You might be bouncing along and keen enough for the game. But you're not driven and that can mean a difference of maybe five or 10 per cent. Multiply that by 15 guys and that's a big difference.
"I make a mistake this time, you make a mistake next time and if you keep multiplying that you're making mistakes every time you try to do something.
"But the fact is one guy being late or one guy getting his timing wrong jeopardises the whole momentum of the team. That's what it can come down to at times."
Ulster are clear favourites to see off Montpellier. Yes, Ulster beat this weekend's guests 25-8 in mid-October at Stade Yves du Manoir, becoming the first side ever to beat them on their own pitch in a Heineken Cup match. But that is history.
"It was a long time ago," Anscombe says. "I think we've all got to move on from that.
"The fact is that we've got them at home and we're going to try and bring some of the momentum we showed last week into the game. They're away and it doesn't look as though they can qualify."
So does he expect them to send an understrength side?
"Well, they can't," he replies instantly. "You've got to announce a 36 or 37-man squad, whatever it is, in September and you can only make two changes from that group – and one of those has got to be a front row (forward). So they've got to select within that group and the one thing you never know with Montpellier is who they'll choose.
"The team that we played was totally different to the one they put out against Leicester – and that side nearly tripped Leicester up. That just shows that there's not a lot of difference in the 36-37 players in that squad.
"All of the players can perform, so we won't be fooled into expecting them to field a weak side.
"They've got international players in that squad and they're not going to be coming here for a holiday weekend," he warns.