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Watching Ireland a painful reminder for Roger Wilson

Northampton star recalls the final when Saints' European dream was left in tatters

by Michael Sadlier

AS Ireland's hopes painfully evaporated on his television screen, Roger Wilson found himself pondering on his own moment of on-pitch horror back in May 2011 at the Millennium Stadium.

You see, the 32-year-old is closely acquainted with the feeling of having, what appears to be, a match-winning lead simply disappear in a maelstrom of shock and confusion.

It was two years ago at the Heineken Cup final when Wilson's Northampton Saints (pictured) sailed off into a 22-6 half-time lead over Leinster and looked shoo-ins for the cup before Joe Schmidt gathered his troops to pull off one of the game's most sensational comebacks to win the trophy after triumphing 33-22 with Jonny Sexton bagging an astonishing 28 points.

True, the Saints didn't exactly see their grip on the game disappear in the red zone, as they had rapidly imploded in the final's second half, but Wilson can still empathise with the Ireland squad after they, too, were put through the wringer on Sunday as they also failed to score a single point over the second 40 minute period with Sexton, this time, missing what would have been a winning penalty.

Needless to say, the memory of that afternoon in Cardiff has stayed with Wilson and is unlikely to ever completely leave him be.

"Yeah I was thinking that that was the closest thing to it," says a reflective Wilson regarding Ireland's white-knuckle ride to defeat alongside his own European final experience, "and, yes, that's also the most disappointing result I've ever had.

"It was similar in that back then we were about 17 points up and I remember we were just thinking at half-time, you know, 'how can we lose now and we'd be absolute mugs if we did'.

"And then towards the end, when you were actually losing, you're just going around in total disbelief and shock.

"And, afterwards, on Sunday, you could see that in their (the Irish players) faces."

"For a lot of those boys that was maybe the one great chance they'll have of beating the All Blacks," Wilson adds before throwing in his own take on how he addressed recovering from losing a Heineken Cup final which seemed his for the taking.

"I'm fairly sure they'll be itching to actually get back out on the pitch again and just try to go about winning another rugby game," he states.

It's just over a decade since Wilson made his Ulster debut and even though he has made over 100 appearances for his home province, and was a key player for Northampton Saints during his four year stint at Franklin's Gardens, inevitably the conversation turns to the fact that he has only ever managed a mere one Ireland cap which came way back in 2005 on tour in Japan.

Naturally it's a somewhat frustrating situation for the consistently performing number eight – who has also recently been showing his versatility by playing right across the back row at Ulster – though he always knew that playing in the English Premiership was rarely beneficial when it came to Irish selection.

Even so, it has still been a niggling issue and particularly as he was recently one of a number of players called down to Carton House but only as additional cover to train with Ireland's squad.

"I was just never really in the plans and part of that reason is because there really haven't been a lot of injuries in the back row," he says with a philosophical acceptance of the situation.

"One of the reasons I came back from England (in summer 2012) was to try and challenge for that (national consideration) a bit more," Wilson adds though a particularly nasty hamstring injury intervened to wreck significant parts of last season and ensure that he continued to make no impression on the Irish radar. Still, he adopts a 'never say never' attitude regarding getting more than a single cap.

The current Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons – who gave Wilson his breakthrough chance in 2003 and has stayed in touch with him since – used to predict great things internationally for a player who became a vital cog in the then Ulster side.

It just didn't work out that way, though.

Wilson's form for Ulster this season – he still has one more to go on his existing contract – has been impressive with his trademark strength in contact giving him more game-time than he might have been expecting in the highly competitive environment of the back row.

Injuries have helped but Wilson still hasn't disappointed – though a late yellow card for a trip during the miserable defeat at the Scarlets was certainly a low point – and he should be playing a key role in the back-to-back Heineken Cup clashes with Treviso over the next fortnight.

First, though, it's a return to Zebre where Ulster escaped in November last year thanks to a late penalty try with Niall O'Connor's conversion only winning the game 27-25.

Wilson played in that game and led Ulster five days later at Treviso when they again scraped another victory, this time by a single point, 16-15.

"Not many teams go over there and win by more than a few points," Wilson maintains.

"Zebre have improved from last year and if you go over there thinking you're going to beat them anyway, well, then, that's really dangerous."

As he knows from personal experience, absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.

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