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Hero of 1999 wants to see Ulster get rub of the green

By Niall Crozier

With expectations rising as the countdown to Saturday night's Ulster v Saracens Heineken Cup quarter-final clash gathers momentum, one of the heroes of 1999 has tipped the province to shade the verdict at Ravenhill.

Native New Zealander, but now wholly-assimilated Ulsterman, Andy Ward was one of the stand-out players in the Harry Williams-coached side that conquered Europe 15 years ago.

He believes the Class of 2014 can emulate that achievement – provided Lady Luck stands up for the Ulstermen.

The Kiwi flanker, who won 28 Irish caps between 1998 and 2001, knows that winners usually enjoy a rub of the green en route to silverware and he believes that, provided they get their share of such moments, Ulster can go all the way.

"I think they're good enough, but they need a little bit of luck to be brutally honest," he said.

"They definitely have what it takes if they get that ounce or two of luck.

"But there are other sides out there who are good enough, too, and Ulster are perhaps just a little bit light in midfield at this stage," he cautioned.

"Any team that has reached the quarter-finals has the potential to win it, but whoever they are they're going to need a bit of good fortune and a bounce or two of the ball going their way. There are very, very fine lines between sides at the top end so those things play a huge part."

As Ward sees it, the guarantee of an Aviva Stadium semi-final against the winners of Saturday afternoon's ASM Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers encounter at Stade Marcel Michelin is another huge incentive for Ulster.

Effectively, that amounts to a home tie in the penultimate round.

"It's all teed up nicely – just as it was for us back in 1999," he said.

"Hopefully it works out for them the way it did for us. It is all set up so now it's up to them to take advantage and the finish the job off."

But the 43-year-old told the Belfast Telegraph that can only happen if they get their act together after last weekend's untimely hiccup. A hard-earned 9-3 victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield on March 21 was followed by Saturday night's 28-23 defeat by Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park.

"Ulster's form has dipped, that's for sure," he warned.

"It's come at a bad time to be honest. Not everybody is performing well right now and that's a little bit worrying. It's a problem, no doubt about that."

Having been such a good flanker, his knowledge of back row play and its exponents is unquestioned.

With that being an area where Mark Anscombe is spoiled for choice, Ward's thoughts on the Ulster coach's options are always going to be sought and valued.

Taking Chris Henry's inclusion at seven as a given, Ward shone his spotlight on the six and eight berths.

"There are two schools of thought on Stephen Ferris's situation; do you start him or do you bring him on off the bench?" he mused.

"Now he'll obviously want to start, but at the same time he is capable of creating a huge impact if you introduce him at some point.

"We saw that a couple of weeks ago at Ravenhill when he came on (against Scarlets) so it's going to be very interesting to see what Ulster decide to do there.

"I'm a big Nick Williams fan, but he needed to have a big performance against Cardiff and that didn't quite happen so I was a little bit disappointed. We only got a couple of glimpses of what he's capable of," Ward said.

"Against that, he is a big-game player, so that's something he has in his favour.

"But Roger (Wilson) has had a very good season and for that reason I think he might just get the nod. As big a fan as I am of Nick, I don't think he did enough (against Cardiff) to take it away from Roger."

Having played in the same Ulster and Ireland teams as Mark McCall, Ward knows what sort of man Saracens' Director of Rugby is and what makes him tick.

Assessing his former colleague, he said: "Small (McCall's nickname) is a pretty cool guy who doesn't get flustered, but he'll be keen to come back here and do well. He's a confident guy and his team will be pretty confident, too.

"They're in good form, they're top of the Premiership and they'd a good win last weekend with a couple of key players away so they will be quietly confident, I'd imagine.

"So will Small, though he'll be cool and collected about the whole thing. That's the sort of guy he is."

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