Rugby Union: Delighted Irish fly flag for final

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RUGBY IN Northern Ireland enjoyed its greatest moment for 44 years yesterday when Ulster qualified for the European Cup final by beating the tournament favourites Stade Francais 33-27 at Ravenhill in Belfast.

Their international full-back, Simon Mason, performed heroics as he kicked five penalties (three of them in the last 15 minutes), a conversion and a drop goal to hoist his personal points tally in this season's competition to 126. His efforts gave Ulster the edge in front of 20,000 ecstatic spectators - the Province's largest rugby crowd since Ireland beat Scotland 6-0 in 1954.

The home side's other points came courtesy of tries from the 32-year- old back-row forward Steve McKinty, who has made more appearances for Ulster than any of his team-mates, and the fly-half David Humphreys who also landed a drop goal.

The French team, who trailed 11-10 at half-time, scored three tries in all - two from their No 8 Christophe Juillet and one from the French international forward Marc Lievremont - while their Argentine-born Italian international fly-half, Diego Dominguez, kicked three conversions and two penalties.

Now Ulster, the first Irish team to reach the European Cup final, can look forward to a red-letter day at Lansdowne Road in Dublin on Saturday 30 January when their opponents will be another French club, Colomiers, who beat Perpignan 10-6 in yesterday's other semi-final.

Harry Williams, who was appointed Ulster's full-time coach only last July, said: "When I came in I said I had a three-year plan in mind but I have to say that winning the European Cup in the first year was not strictly a part of it. But now that we have come this far we have to go the next step and win it."

Meanwhile, English rugby seems intent on continuing its painful journey towards oblivion. Not only have the RFU shown the door to 30 of their staff (including Roger Uttley), but the reliability of the Mayfair Agreement and Sir John Hall's allegiance to Newcastle are both in question. It is a relief, therefore, that the meeting between Tom Walkinshaw, the English clubs' representative, and the French League president, Serge Blanco, on Friday in Paris may lead to a breakthrough in the stand-off between the English clubs and European Rugby Cup Ltd. "I don't think we'll find a final solution on the 15th, but I'm sure there'll be progress," said Blanco. "Walkinshaw's an honest, intelligent guy. I think he's the man to help reach a settlement."

The conflict began when English clubs requested a greater slice of the European commercial cake. But ERC - the company which organises and runs the tournament on behalf of all five unions - has so far refused.

Asked whether French clubs would play in Europe next year if their English counterparts did not return, Blanco replied: "At the moment we will not take sides, we have made no decision. All we know is that we want a European competition. Things are actually quite simple. Either there's a European tournament and we can live and prosper or there isn't and our rugby dies."

Rugby, pages 11-13