Former Ulster full back Bryn Cunningham has backed the team to bounce back from Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat by Northampton to win the Magners League.
Cunningham was part of the squad that won the cup in 1999 but was forced to retire earlier this season due to injury and was at the Stadium MK on Sunday to witness Ulster’s first involvement in the knock-out stages for 12 years.
“When I was at the match at the weekend that’s when you miss it. I would have rather being playing but I don’t miss the cold, wet training days at Newforge,” said Cunningham.
“I think the guys will be bitterly disappointed but you have to give credit to the Saints as their forwards were immense.
“There was an added physicality and intensity because there was a lot at stake and the atmosphere raised the tempo.
“Their front row was huge but I thought Ulster defended extremely well and the back line was unbelievable,” he said.
“Ulster will be happy with where they are at and they will come back stronger next season.”
Cunningham feels that now Ulster have finally emerged from the groups they can go on and do it on a regular basis.
“I don’t think we’ll be waiting another 12 years for a quarter-final, the monkey is now off the players’ backs and they won’t be carrying any baggage.
“The Saints were in the same position last season when they lost to Munster and that added experience helped them on Sunday. Ulster will be better off for this year’s experience.”
Adam D’Arcy missed a glorious chance to get Ulster back into the game when he dropped the ball with the try line at his mercy but his fellow full back Cunningham has plenty of sympathy for the Australian.
“I felt sorry for Adam as I thought it was one of his best games for Ulster and he had a terrific match.
“Unfortunately he made one error at a pivotal time in the game but these things happen. I know as a full back your mistakes are highlighted because it is such an exposed position and Adam didn’t deserve it.
“The boys will pick him up and when you look at the game as a whole you can’t blame him,” Cunningham added.
While Europe may be gone for another season Ulster are still right in the mix for a place in the semi-final of the Magners League and Cunningham feels they are in with a great chance of emulating the side he played in that clinched the title on a dramatic night at the Ospreys in 2006.
“It’s fantastic that there is another competition to look forward to and so much to play for — and the Magners League is there for the taking,” he said.
“The boys will regroup and I’m sure it will take them three or four days to recover after Northampton — they will be raring to go and will be up to the task for Leinster at the weekend.
“With three games to go I’m sure they can clinch a semi-final spot,” he said.
The memories of the last league win are still fresh in the memory.
“David Humphreys’ kick at the end was a great feeling. We’d won the cup a couple of seasons before but it wasn’t at the same level as winning the league,” said Cunningham.
“It takes a lot of hard work because of the amount of games involved and they are great memories.”
Although he has had to hang the boots up, Cunningham is hoping to give something back to the game.
“I’m still involved in rugby through Cornerflag, doing a bit of mentoring and coaching younger players,” Cunningham added.