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We salute our Ulster heroes

By Niall Crozier

There is a crucial meeting in Dublin today, the Heineken Cup stakeholders re-assembling in the hope of thrashing out the future of the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge.

Let us hope self-interest yields to the greater good of the game. With everyone seemingly agreeing that northern hemisphere rugby benefits enormously as a result of these twin tournaments, what remains to be resolved is format and governance.

Put more bluntly – what remains to be resolved is where the money goes and who holds power. Unions or clubs?

That's what it is about now and greater than I decreed that the love of money is the root of all evil and that power corrupts.

But while the decision-makers muse on the future of the European tournaments, today we can reflect on the magnificence of Ulster's achievement in southern France on Saturday afternoon, in tandem with the previous weekend's exploits in Belfast.

By virtue of victory over the defending Aviva Premiership champions Leicester followed by one against a Montpellier side sharing joint leadership of France's Top 14, Ulster head Pool Five by two points from the Tigers.

They really are in the box seat, for by the time Leicester and Montpellier square up at Welford Road on Saturday, December 8, Mark Anscombe's side will hope to have opened an even bigger gap.

That's because on Saturday, December 7, Ulster host thus far pointless Benetton Treviso and unless something totally unforeseen goes horribly wrong for them, they will win that match, too, thereby completing a straight hat-trick of successes. Now that really would be a case of putting it up to others.

Let's just pause to get our heads around what Ulster have done in recent seasons in Europe. Bear in mind that they are on course for a place in the last eight for the fourth year in a row. Now, given that they previously tried – and failed – to reach the quarter-finals for 11 seasons on the bounce, that is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

Remember, too, that from the competition's inception in 1995-96, it was January 2010 before Ulster beat English opponents on English soil. Finally a 28-10 rout of Bath at their famous Recreation Ground home forced that monkey off Ulster's back.

And to prove that had not been a one-off, they returned to the same venue the following season and won 26-22.

The French hoodoo remained, however. Ulster had crossed the Channel no fewer than 16 times and, with the exception of a 35-35 draw in 2000-01, every one of those trips had ended in defeat. But then, in January 2013, that duck was broken, too, thanks to a 9-8 victory over Castres Olympique in the final pool stage match.

And as had happened once the English jinx was laid to rest, history repeated itself for at the weekend Ulster left France triumphant for the second year in a row, too.

Now there are no more hoodoos, no more psychological barriers to be overcome, no lingering fear of a country where Ulster feel they are fated to lose.

The beauty of their situation is that they are right on target for a home quarter-final at the start of April. And while Ulster's players insist that they are not looking beyond their next game, their supporters most certainly are scanning the horizon, even at this stage.

The maths is not too difficult – a pre-Christmas home and away double over Treviso who, even now, are out of contention, followed by a Ravenhill victory over Montpellier who could be out of the running, too, depending on how their Yuletide double header against Leicester pans out, would leave Ulster going to Welford Road unbeaten and in total control of their own destiny.

Even before Saturday afternoon's heroics at Stade Yves du Manoir where he was quite magnificent, that's exactly the scenario Rory Best said he wanted – going to Leicester in the knowledge that a win would guarantee Ulster a home game in the last eight.

One word of caution; Ulster topped their pool last season but missed out on a home quarter-final nevertheless.

That's because others scored points which saw them squeeze past Anscombe's men who, as a result, were nudged out to fifth spot.

That cost Ulster dearly for in the quarter-finals the pairings are 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6, 4 v 5. Last year Toulon, Saracens and Ulster all finished on 23 points having won five matches and banked three bonuses, but were seeded third, fourth and fifth in view of the points they scored – 186, 180 and 126 respectively.

But don't things change quickly in the Heineken Cup? Last year Harlequins entered the quarter-finals as number one seeds, only then to lose at home to Munster. This year they are bottom of Pool Four.

And at the weekend, champions Toulon were toppled by PRO 12 strugglers Cardiff.

Meanwhile Ulster have become a whole lot more street-wise to the demands and nuances of European rugby.

Belfast Telegraph

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