Heineken Cup: No nerves, no bonus points, just victory
David Humphreys has walked the walk as an Ulster player. A less reserved man could say, “been there, done that” but that is not his style.
Tomorrow Ulster Rugby’s Operations Director, who — in Mark McCall’s injury-enforced absence captained the Harry Williams-coached team that won the Heineken Cup in 1999 — will watch from the grandstand in Viadana as his young brother, Ian, and company attempt to repeat the heroics of 12 years ago.
By his own admission, things have changed in the interim.
“I think it’s a very different game now than when we were playing. I know it all sounds very cliched but we have prepared for this week as we would prepare for any other week,” he said.
“I think the secret is to keep it the same and not make it into something that’s too big.
“We know that if we go out and perform well we win the game. We believe that we’re a better rugby team than Aironi and that if we play to our potential then, with the players we have, we will win.”
The spectre of past failure does not intimidate him. This is a different ball game. The approach is much more studied.
“So many times in the past Ulster teams have gone out when they haven’t been as good as the opposition in terms of the individuals involved and then you’ve been looking for the team to be better than that.
“You can talk about the passion and the pride and everything that comes from playing for Ulster and while that’s still important now it’s not as important as it was.
“Now it’s about going out and doing what we’re good at and doing it well.”
He does not foresee nerves or anxiety playing any major part, his view being that as professionals the players are accustomed to dealing with such emotions.
“It’s what you do, it’s your job. Rather than talk about nerves call it nervous anticipation. You want to get out there, you want to play.”
Having masterminded the summer signings of Springboks Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg he is delighted with their contributions to date.
“One of the things we did this year was sign players who have played in games a lot bigger than this in their careers, both at club and international level,” he said.
“I think we’ve seen over the past few weeks, in the big games, that those players have all performed well — with the exception of the Leinster game when none of the players performed well. They’ve controlled games.
“There has been a lot of talk over the past number of years about how young the Ulster team is. We said last year, as part of our recruitment, we wanted players who would be leaders of the group and people who had experience.
“Obviously they’ve got to be top quality players and despite what some people would have you think, I think they have been absolutely magnificent for us.
“If you sit down and analyse the games you’ll see they’ve done very well. It takes time to settle in and to get used to the players you’re playing with and because of that we are hugely positive about the contribution they have made.”
With any win sufficient to see Ulster through, they are in a hitherto unimaginable position. There will be no risk-taking in pursuit of a bonus point victory, though.
“Given how the results went on Sunday we have the luxury of knowing that a win will take us through into the quarter-finals of Europe. We haven’t been there for so long that we’ve got to go there (to Aironi) and win,” he said.
“I don’t think you can ever go out talking about bonus points. If you’re one of the best teams in the world, yes, maybe you can.
“But we cannot do that. We have to go out and do what we do well in the knowledge that if we do that we can win the game and then maybe put ourselves in a position where we score four tries.
“But I don’t think any team goes out saying they’re going to score four tries. Teams just want to win the game.
“My view, very firmly, is that you control what you can control. We can control the fact that we can get into the quarter-final by winning the game. But if Biarritz beat Bath with a bonus point then no matter what we do Biarritz go through as winners of the group.
“That’s something we can’t influence, so we’ve got to just concentrate on winning. If, as a result of playing well to win the game, we get four tries, that’s great.”
So what will the dressing room be like just ahead of kick-off?
“Of course there’s emotion before you play every game because it’s an incredibly physical sport. But the emotion is not like it used to be. There’s no head-butting walls now to get themselves ready. Those days are long gone.
“There are emotions, but it’s about controlling that, taking it and making it work for the team.
“Knowing that there are calm heads in there is important; knowing that there are people on the pitch who are able to make decisions in a calm and collected manner. Those are the people you look to when the time for big decisions on the pitch comes.”