Ulster Rugby's roadmap to a repeat of historic European victory
Whisper it softly but Ulster can begin daring to hope that they might just be on track to repeat the European Cup-winning exploits of the heroes of 1999.
Saturday night's 22-19 victory over Aviva Premiership champions Leicester Tigers at their hitherto impregnable Welford Road fortress earned Ulster – with a perfect six wins in six pool matches — the number one seeds' tag and a home quarter-final against eighth-placed Saracens.
It pitches Mark Anscombe and his Ulster heroes back against former Ulster coach Mark McCall's side in a revenge bid for last season's quarter-final defeat.
And although this is the fourth year in a row that they have reached the last eight, this will be the first time since 1999 that Ulster will be at home in the quarters. And new-look Ravenhill, with a capacity of 18,200, will be ready to host the showdown.
In striving to match the achievement of 15 years ago, the fates have dealt Ulster a kind hand, albeit not as generous as the one handed to the men of '99 who enjoyed home advantage in the semi-final as well as the quarters en route to seeing off Colomiers in the final in Dublin.
Home-stadium semi-finals are a thing of the past, but Ulster have the next best thing — the guarantee of an Aviva Stadium date provided they put paid to McCall's Londoners. Their reward for that would be a Dublin semi against the winners of the Clermont v Leicester quarter-final.
A May 24 showdown against the survivors of the Toulon v Leinster and Munster v Tolouse pairings for the European champions' crown at the Millennium Stadium is the goal.
Captain Johann Muller was keen to emphasise that there is a very long way to go.
“It’s our fourth quarter-final in a row but we haven’t won one yet,” he pointed out. But tellingly he added: “Having said that, we’re very aware that we’re in a position to win the Heineken Cup, but only if we continue to do what we’re doing.
“At this stage, all we’re looking at is Saracens at home. We’re not looking any further than a quarter-final.
“If we produce a big performance like we did against Leicester and show the same commitment, the heart and the work-rate, backing each other up, I’ve every confidence that we can win the quarter-final. And who knows what can happen after that?” was his rhetorical question.
Muller's fellow-countryman, Ruan Pienaar — scorer of all 22 of Ulster's points against Leinster — was upbeat, too. He said: “This team's got belief — I think we have something special going here. If we can just improve on that again we might have something special at the end of the season.”
Ulster Director of Rugby David Humphreys' reaction to the outcome was: “We are obviously pleased to be on the home side of the draw for the semi-finals, but that will only be relevant if we beat Saracens at Ravenhill in the quarter-final. Winning that game is what we are fully focused on now.
“Over the past few seasons we have made steady improvement — first we qualified, then last year we won our group but were away, now we have finished the Pool stage as top seeds and have a home quarter-final.
“We are delighted to have the game at home and to be able open the newly redeveloped Ravenhill for the match. It will also be great to welcome Mark McCall, with his strong connection with the province as both a player and coach, back to Belfast.
“Last season we were hugely disappointed with the way we performed at Twickenham against Saracens. Now we have the opportunity to lay those ghosts to rest.”
Meanwhile, Paul O’Connell kept the good news coming for Munster as he confirmed agreement is close on a new deal with the IRFU, which will keep him at the province.
Speaking after his side’s 38-6 bonus-point win over Edinburgh at Thomond Park, the totemic Ireland captain (34) said, while he has yet to put pen to paper on a new deal, it appears imminent.
"Hopefully, it's getting there," he said of the extension that would likely see him finish his career a one-club man.
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