Spirit of ’99 stronger than ever with Ulster ahead of Heineken semi-final

After 12 long years, Ulster are finally back in the Heineken Cup semi-finals. The gap in time between their last semi-final against Stade Français at Ravenhill and this weekend in Dublin is far too long for a club with such pride and passion. Win on Saturday however, and Ulster will get a chance to have another trophy to add to their Colomiers success.

Against Stade that day at Ravenhill, Ulster legends Simon Mason, David Humphries, Justin Fitzpatrick et al took on the flair of Diego Dominguez, Richard Dourthe, Pieter de Villiers and future French coach Marc Lièvremont, emerging victorious when few expected them too. Mason’s accurate boot racked up 20 crucial points that day. Now in the present, the onus is on Ruan Pienaar’s boot to bring about another semi-final success.

The modern Ulster is a far different beast to the ’99 model, enhanced by foreign talent whilst developing Irish stars of their own. Of the current crop however, Stephen Ferris stands apart from the rest. With his 2009 Lions tour cut short through injury, the world was robbed of seeing Ferris burst onto the world’s scene. Two years later however, his name was made at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The media speculation regarding his fitness before this year’s quarter-final with Munster merely emphasised how crucial he is to Ulster. On form, his physicality can turn games upside down.

Generally speaking however, people have known about Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Rory Best for quite some time. It has been the emergence of Ulster’s new talent this season that has taken them a stage further than last year’s quarter-final defeat against Northampton. Chris Henry has matched Ferris for intensity at the breakdown, starring in Ulster’s defeat away to Clermont. Craig Gilroy scored one of the tries of the season against Munster in the quarter-final. Add to those two the likes of Darren Cave, Adam D’Arcy, Tom Court and Dan Tuohy, and Ulster have players more than capable of competing at this level.

The foreign legion may be heavily South African with Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg, Pienaar and Stefan Terblanche in the squad this season, but it is a former All Black who Ulster will miss the most against Edinburgh this weekend. John Afoa’s unjust suspension for a tip-tackle against Munster deprives his side of both a powerful scrummaging weapon and a superb workhorse in defence. How long these players will remain in Belfast is in doubt given the new IRFU directives regarding foreign players, but their impact if Ulster are to be triumphant on May 19th will never be forgotten.

But first, come Edinburgh. In their two RaboDirect Pro12 matches this season, Ulster have run in 10 tries against their Scottish counterparts, with heavy wins both home and away. The Heineken Cup though is on a different level. That underlying confidence from those big wins will come to blows in a mental war with the pressure of Ulster being favourites. With the quality they have assembled and the manner of their victories in this season’s Heineken Cup, perhaps their time is now.

by Ben Coles