Rugby Union: European Cup final -Friends of the north

Ulster harvest their home-grown talents to present a united front of pure rugby
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The Independent Online
ULSTER'S odyssey in Europe represents not only a remarkable success for the Northern Ireland province but should serve as a role model for the troubled home unions.

Compared to the rest, the Irish, for so long the impoverished members of the Five Nations in terms of resources and players, are laughing all the way to the Bank of Ireland.

Not only will Ulster, whose supporting army during the cup run has grown from 2,000 to nearly 50,000, make something of a financial killing when they meet Colomiers in the final of the European Cup at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, on Saturday, but they should make a point or two.

There has been no expensive recruitment of southern hemisphere talent and there have been no interminable wrangles between clubs and country. This is a home-grown production, which partly explains why Ulster were not given a prayer in the competition and at the same time reveals one of their great strengths.

"We're like one big family," Harry Williams, the coach, said. "There are no overseas imports and the game is still under the control of the Irish union. It's not as dominated by money as in other countries and there are no wealthy benefactors looking for their cut. Everybody in the squad is eligible to play for Ireland."

They may be eligible, but not many Ulstermen will be returning to Lansdowne Road on 6 February when Ireland play France in the opening round of the Five Nations. Only two, the centre Jonathan Bell and the flanker Andy Ward, played against the Springboks before Christmas and although Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, has delayed naming his side until after the cup final, it can only be for one reason: the form of David Humphreys.

Since returning to the greener grass of Belfast from London Irish, when the IRFU made a concerted effort to bring the exiles home, Humphreys has been pivotal in Ulster's march.

After a virtuoso performance for Oxford in the 1995 Varsity match, when he looked like the next Tony Ward, his career stubbornly refused to take off.

He failed to put the sun into Sunbury and failed to convince the national selectors that he was the natural choice for stand-off. Gatland prefers the more prosaic approach of Eric Elwood, whom he coached at Connacht. However, Gatland saw Humphreys at his best when Ulster produced one of the great performances of the European Cup, defeating Stade Francais, the creme de la creme of French club rugby, 33-27 in the semi-finals before a full house at Ravenhill in Belfast two weeks ago.

"He's playing the rugby of his life," Williams said of the 27-year-old Ulster captain. "He has a new-found confidence. He's making decisions and he's running the game. He's been an inspiration. That try against Stade Francais was a wee moment of brilliance."

That try was the defining moment as Humphreys turned defence into attack and finished off a move he had improvised from deep in his own half. Ravenhill experienced lift-off. "It has done the whole community a power of good," Williams said. "Rugby is very different from the political set-up. It's an all-Ireland sport with no borders. There are some Catholic players in the side but I couldn't even tell you who they were. We are non- political, non-religious. Such topics are banned from the game."

If the campaign has been marked by the footballing skills of Humphreys and the wonderful goal-kicking of the fullback, Simon Mason (he scored 20 points against Stade Francais), it has also been a personal success for Williams, a coach who is not exactly a household name outside the province. He signed a three-year contract last summer after resigning as headmaster of Holywood Primary School. "Teaching is a dreadful profession to be in at the moment," Williams said. "I would rather scrub floors than go back to that."

This is Williams' second spell with Ulster and he has also coached Ireland A, Bective Rangers and Bangor, enjoying success with the latter in the Eighties. "Nothing equates to this," he said. "This has exceeded our wildest dreams. I'm hoping it will encourage more players, like Paddy Johns and Jeremy Davidson, to come home." The headmaster is renowned, not for addresses of fire and brimstone, but for doing his homework. He has issued the players with a little handbook. They call it the red handbook.

Ulster's emblem is a bloody red hand (it features prominently on their jerseys) which perpetuates the legend of two warrior princes vying for ownership of the kingdom of Ulster. Whoever touched the coastline first would claim the territory and one of them cut off his hand and threw it on to the shore.

Nobody can accuse Ulster of throwing in their hand. After opening their European campaign with a draw and a defeat, they proceeded to put two fingers up to everybody, winning six in a row. Fortress Ravenhill has been a key factor. They lost to Toulouse 39-3 in the pool stage in France but beat them 29-24 in Belfast and then again 15-13 in the quarter-finals.

Colomiers is to Toulouse what Lydney is to Gloucester and they will be thoroughly briefed. However, the best advice for Colomiers is to stick plenty of cotton wool in their ears in an attempt to muffle the noise.

Unlike Toulouse and Stade Francais, Colomiers have been spared a visit to Ravenhill where the capacity is 20,000. Instead they will find a sell- out crowd of 49,000 at Lansdowne Road, all but 3,000 of them Irish, despite the fact that the match is being televised live in Ireland and France and also featured on BBC's Grandstand.

When Bath (no defence of the cup but wretched victims of England's withdrawal) beat Brive in Bordeaux last season the attendance was 36,500. Colomiers, a town with a population of 32,000 six kilometres from Toulouse, are bringing 1,000 supporters and another 2,000 tickets have been sold elsewhere in France. In Ireland there have been more than 60,000 applications for tickets.

Last season Colomiers won the European Shield, stunning the likes of Richmond in the process. They have an exceptionally strong pack, which means that the Ulster front row can expect to be under the cosh again, and the great Jean-Luc Sadourny at full-back.

They also have a white dove as their emblem, which doesn't quite portray the same message as a hand dripping with blood.