I felt invincible: Ulster's 2012 heroes relive their European upset at Munster as the current crop plan their own shock at Leinster
Having finished runners-up to Clermont in a pool that also contained Leicester Tigers and Aironi, Ulster qualified for the 2011/12 Heineken Cup quarter-finals as eighth seeds and face a daunting trip to face Munster in their Thomond Park citadel. The hosts, who have lost only once at home in European competition are installed as six-point favourites.
In between the pool stages and the knock-outs, it is announced that head coach Brian McLaughlin will be moved to a role in the Academy at the end of the season.
Darren Cave: For some reason, I really genuinely believed that if we weren't going to win, it was at least going to be very close. I didn't believe there was anywhere on the pitch where they were considerably better than us. I remember being unusually confident. I just had this feeling that ‘we're going to do this.’
Andrew Trimble: Going to Thomond Park, it's a thankless task most of the time. I wasn't optimistic. I probably didn't appreciate how good our side was at the time to be honest. Who goes to Thomond Park for a quarter-final and is confident?
Ian Humphreys: We played Northampton the year before. Then it felt like, 'right, we've done really well, we're in the quarter-finals, lets go and see what happens.' We kind of thought we could win but we weren't surprised that we didn't. 2012, we had no doubts.
It never felt like we were losing. We knew. We'd realised that if we won that game we'd be playing Edinburgh in the semi-final. I don't want to sound arrogant but we'd beaten Edinburgh twice already (that season), scoring about 40 each time.
Every now and again you go into a game knowing that you're going to win. I've only been involved in a couple through my career but that was one of them. Stade Francais at home was another, one or two for Leicester...you just know. If you could bottle that mindset and sell it, you'd be a millionaire.
Craig Gilroy: I remember getting a wee bit emotional when the bus was driving into Thomond Park.
That doesn't really ever happen to me really. We pulled up in the bus, and once you're at the stadium, it's only about 40 metres to the door but we made that turn and it was just all these Ulster jerseys and flags. I saw my parents there which was weird in a crowd of 30,000 people and I just hadn't expected us to have so much support because the lead-up to it, all I'd seen was how much we were underdogs. It all just sort of took me back a bit.
Dan Tuohy: The fans were a different level. There seemed to be so many of them, most of them on the beer. It was great to hear at such a partisan stadium.
IH: Nobody knows why you win more at home than away but it does make a difference. Coming out and seeing all our fans over in that one stand, it really did give you a lift.
DT: Brian McLaughlin, he’d pushed all the right buttons that week, he really had that team purring.
AT: It was strange (for McLaughlin), I'd agree with that. It was tough on him. We had a great balance. In the same way (Declan) Kidney would have done, there was key leaders put in place to really drive the team and the coaching team facilitated that. We had Johann (Muller) and Rory (Best), and Ruan as well, they shaped the team. Brian impacted what he could impact but knew when to have things be player-led.
I think maybe there were people who thought that the best thing to do was to get a coach who would lead it, but that maybe wasn't necessarily the case. We all thought the world of Brian. He was a bit of a father figure, he was a bit of a softie in a lot ways. He was so popular. Creating a bit of history, with him, for him, it made it a bit more special.
CG: He was going through tough times that season himself but he did so well with us and he'll always have a special place in the heart of Ulster supporters.
Despite struggling with an injury picked up against Aironi in the PRO12 a week prior – the Belfast Telegraph featured ‘Ankle Watch’ in the build-up to the big game - Stephen Ferris sets an early tone while impressive work from the visiting pack give Ruan Pienaar two long-range penalty attempts.
Stephen Ferris: Ankle watch, yeah (laughs). I was struggling with it throughout the week. It was a race to be fit, it really was. I was pretty close to not playing. I wasn't 100% but I rarely was. I felt, mentally, that I could get through it. The physios wouldn't have put me out there if I was at risk of making it worse. It was one of the best games I ever played for Ulster. Everything clicked. I felt invincible. It's hard to put your finger on why something like that happens, but when it does, you feel incredible.
Chris Henry: The back-row – myself, Ferris and Pedrie (Wannenburg) - that was the best game we played together. We were causing carnage, doing real damage. Sometimes Stevie would lead from the front like that and it was up to us to follow him. It was class, we really were in sync. Almost doing a Munster to Munster.
SF: We got a few penalties from the upper-hand in the scrum
DT: Tom Court against BJ Botha.
DC: Ruan knocking over the penalties from half-way. Thomond Park, fair play, is incredibly quiet when the opposition is kicking. I just remember the thud when Ruan connected with the ball. When he kicked the ball, from that distance, in that quiet, it almost echoed. You talk about a game of inches if one of those decisions doesn't go our way, if Ruan doesn't make kicks from 50m, then it's still 0-0. Then Gilly’s try…
CG: Humph threw a brilliant pass to Stefan Terblanche, a skip pass where Stefan didn’t have to break stride. When the ball came to me, I just sort of looked up and felt like it was on. Tried to beat a few players as best I could.
AT: To be fair, he only had half a dozen chances to turn it into a simple two-on-one.
DC: It's funny with Craig, if you watch his highlight reel it's all just clips of me overtaking him on the inside looking a pass I never get (laughs).
CG: I think I hear that from Cavey about once a week, to be honest.
DC: He gets in this zone sometimes where he's blinkered. He's never going to pass but he's never going to be stopped either.
CG: There are times when, even you're a good bit out from the try-line, you can almost put it all together in your head what you need to get there. You can work out what you need, whether it's achievable, and see it almost like an equation. It's hard to explain. Once you have the momentum, and defenders are coming from all over the place, they're the ones with the hard work to do. Once you get in that zone, and you feel in control, it's very hard to be stopped. I was sent a video later on, somebody sitting behind my Dad was videoing him as I scored and he was just ecstatic. My Dad wouldn't normally show emotions at all. It was nice to see.
IH: I was on his outside too. It could have been me getting that Volkswagen for Try of the Year (laughs).
CG: It was a watch, actually, engraved with the date of the fixture and who we were playing. I’ve still got it, it’s a nice memento. I’d like to maybe give it to my kids one day.
Pienaar’s conversion puts Ulster 13-0 up before a further Pienaar penalty and a Humphreys’ drop goal nudge them into a 19-0 lead. Simon Zebo scores for Munster just six minutes before half-time, while Chris Henry will spend five minutes either side of the turn in the sin bin after a yellow card from Romain Poite.
CH: First penalty of the game that I’d given away, dead middle of the park, it wasn't like they were about to score. I couldn't believe he gave me a yellow. It was ridiculous. I was terrified, absolutely terrified. I was there thinking to myself 'have I blown this for us, for everybody?'
AT: Chris has told me this before, if he was lying on the right side of the ruck, that he would grab a hand or an arm of an opposition player on the ground and make him hit the ball with it. He used to get away with it a lot just to slow up the ball that little bit more and make the opposition nine have to go hunting for it. Not this time, Poite was there like 'I know exactly what you've just done. Yellow card.'
CH: At least that’s the best time to get a yellow card, either side of half-time.
AT: As the boys were coming out he was telling us 'just give me a big seven minutes, I just need a big seven minutes.' We were kind of rolling our eyes thinking 'lad if you hadn't got binned you could have been giving a big seven minutes' (laughs).
CH: Thankfully, everyone dug deep.
It’s 19-13 when Henry returns to the action, and while Ronan O’Gara and Pienaar trade penalties to make it 22-16 with 20 minutes remaining. Ulster hold firm for a famous win.
SF: Munster had to play catch-up rugby very early. It was a great feeling kicking the ball back to them knowing that they had to try and score from everywhere because three points wasn't going to be enough.
AT: We got great returns out of Ruan's kicking, chasing kicks and putting teams under pressure. I don't think it was something we ever sat down and said it was an area that we really could get returns out of but it was like the Montpellier game (the next season) where we did it once, got some joy and just did it over and over again. It was something Munster struggled with and even if they regathered, we were on the front foot defensively. It's a bit like what Saracens went on to do. We didn't shut up shop or anything. But we showed that we could defend too. Make a tackle, get up, make another tackle. There was just so much energy in us.
IH: I’d a drop-goal to make it a nine-point game. For the first one, it was a set-piece move off a line-out. A peel for Ferris, something fancy but it went horribly wrong and the ball came to me and I just knocked it over. For the rest of the game Paddy (Wallace) kept saying to me, have another go. The second one shaved the outside of the left post. I'd hit it off balance and wasn't set. As soon as I dropped it, I wanted it back. I was getting charged down and had to draw it round.
It’s a bittersweet memory for me really. I was delighted we won and it was such a great occasion. But I’d been useless really. One nice pass and a drop goal…not much else went right. I had that nagging thought in my mind. There is that selfishness, it's terrible but everybody has it. Jacko (Paddy Jackson) was being readied to come in and I reckoned I was about to be dropped. It’s not something I’m bitter about at all but when I think of that game, I sometimes do think If I'd played better, that drop goal goes over, Gilly gives me that pass...
SF: There was a calmness about the team, even when Munster brought it back to one score. We just felt that we were better.
AT: I didn’t realise it was that close. Maybe we felt more comfortable than it was. If you’d told me we’d won by nine or ten points I’d have believed you.
DC: It's hard to describe that feeling just after a final whistle. There’s a picture and it's me and then Dan Tuohy is on the ground. We just caught eyes and roared.
CH: There's that iconic picture too of Johann, Tom Court with Ronan O'Gara on his knees.
AT: I think that picture is still up in the tunnel at Kingspan. O'Gara came into our changing room after. That must have been unbelievably tough for him. Munster in a knock-out game in Thomond, they don't lose. Right in the middle of that whole process, he came in and addressed the few of us that we're still hanging around. He just said 'listen lads, you were the better team today, it was a brilliant performance. Best of luck in going on in the competition.' That was a big thing from him, to have him congratulate us was very special.
CG: I remember the press conference afterwards, there was a reporter who asked me about the tour to New Zealand that summer. To have someone mention me playing for Ireland it was just sort of, 'Oh my goodness, y'know, a decent try and there's talk of Ireland. That felt another level. I was 21-years-old.
The reporter said something about the man on your left, when Brian McLaughlin was on my right, when I said 'you mean right' the whole room burst out laughing and I always felt a bit bad. Standing around I could see the news on TV showing my try. Bit embarrassing.
CH: Normally after games there you're trying to get away as quick as you can but this time we didn't rush, we took our time, relaxed, just soaked it all up enjoying each other's company, having a few beers. Normally you want to get showered and on the road as quick as you can but we really savoured it. There's a picture of me, Dan Tuohy and Paddy (Wallace) with a beer in our hands, looking absolutely exhausted but so happy and proud. I've still got that photo.
DC: I remember hearing all the banter in all the Applegreens from Limerick to Belfast. 7,000 away fans...but then you think that probably 6,000 have driven down together on the roads at the same time. It's a funny thing to think about, sending all those fans back up the road happy. That's class. For me I was lucky enough to experience it a few times. I don't know how many fans will have going to the Aviva but, yeah, hopefully, we can give them a day to remember too.