Uslter Rugby can tame Leicester Tigers, says Robbie Diack
Robbie Diack, Ulster's barnstorming blindside flanker, has no doubts that he and his colleagues are more than capable of going to Welford Road and upstaging Leicester Tigers in Saturday night's Heineken Cup showdown.
In early October he signed up a three-year contract extension, thereby committing himself to Ulster until June 2017. He did so for the simple reason that all the evidence points to progress on and off the park. He speaks confidently about Ulster's prospects of landing silverware between now and the date on which his new contract expires. Indeed, he speaks confidently about the province's chances of winning a trophy this season.
His belief stems from his faith in the squad, the quality of the management team and the superb training and playing facilities.
But perhaps most importantly, he highlights the experience gleaned from appearances in cup finals in each of the past two seasons. True, Ulster lost the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect PRO12 finals – both against Leinster – in 2012 and 2013 respectively. But they learned a lot as a result of having been there, leading Diack to believe that those painful lessons will stand them in good stead this year and beyond.
"Everyone says you've got to be involved in a couple of finals before you win one," the big Irish-qualified South African points out. "Well, we have been involved in two in the past two seasons so hopefully that has been our learning experience.
"But trophies aren't won until May or June – there is a lot of rugby between now and then. We aren't in any finals at this stage; we'll just have to cross that bridge when we get to one."
If Ulster are to go all the way to this season's Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium on May 24, they can ease their route to Cardiff somewhat by beating Leicester this Saturday night (6pm).
Victory would guarantee Mark Anscombe's side a home quarter-final and history proves that it is those playing knock-out matches on their own patch who tend to go through.
The prospect of hosting a quarter-final at Ravenhill is a huge motivating force for Diack right now.
"I don't think it gets any more exciting than having to go to Welford Road and trying to win to get a home quarter-final," he enthuses.
"To get a home quarter-final here at Ravenhill would be the ideal situation. There's a hell of a lot of work to do this week ahead of the game and, of course, on Saturday evening, but we know the importance of it so we just can't wait to go out there and play."
Such is the interest in Ulster Rugby back in his native land that Diack knows many South Africans will be tuning in to see how his province fares against the English champions.
He explains: "When I go back to South Africa, people are talking about Ulster. Ruan Pienaar could have gone to any club in the world, but he has decided to stay here for another three years. That is a huge boost for Ulster Rugby.
"To secure a player like that for another three years, which means he will have stayed here for six years, is something people in other places are talking about.
"I've got a whole lot of friends who play rugby in South Africa and they would all love to have a taste of the game in the northern hemisphere. So they follow the South Africans who are playing in the northern hemisphere.
"Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar (pictured), BJ Botha and Pedrie Wannenburg are the more high-profile South Africans who moved to the northern hemisphere and that automatically links up with Ulster. Stefan Terblanche came here, too, two years ago, so again people in South Africa were hearing about another player who had gone to Ulster.
"Then Ulster beat Munster away in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, and then they won the semi-final and reached the final at Twickenham, where they had four South Africans in their team.
"So people have become more and more interested as a result of all of these things. And they will have seen Friday's game against Montpllier at a full, sold-out stadium, with New Zealanders like John Afoa and Jared Payne in the Ulster side.
"And they know the Irish players like Rory Best and Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe, so this is a club that's on the map of world rugby and because it is, players want to come here."
Saturday may be still the pool stage, but there is no denying the anticipation Diack feels. His sheer enthusiasm floods forth as he says: "I know there's a lot of Ulster supporters going over, which is great for the team because it definitely gives us that extra bit of momentum on the field."
And then, without hint of misgiving, he adds words which will delight all of the those heading across the Irish Sea and the tens of thousands back home – be that Belfast or South Africa – who will glued to their television sets.
"We're just looking forward it. I can't wait for Saturday evening."
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