Rugby Union: Expectant Ulster ready to roar

The Irish are in the mood to pull off another European shock.
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The Independent Online
THERE IS no other way to describe it - the biggest rugby occasion in Ulster for almost half a century. Not since Ireland beat Scotland in Belfast in 1954 has a match so captured the imagination of the province's sporting public.

And what ever happens on Saturday, when Ulster take on Stade Francais at Ravenhill, the run of improbable success which has propelled them into this eagerly awaited European Cup semi-final is already the stuff of folklore.

Wet and windy Friday nights in Belfast, usually good only for the cultivation of hangovers, have taken on a new meaning these past three months since Ulster began to beat more fancied opponents in front of their burgeoning cult following.

"In the three previous years of the competition we'd won only two games out of 12, so we didn't have a great pedigree," Michael Reid, the chief executive of the Ulster branch of the Irish RFU, said. "In the past, we wouldn't get more than 3,000 at Ravenhill. This year, the figure has grown from 4,000 to close to the 12,500 capacity for last month's quarter-final win over Toulouse. We're expecting over 17,000 for the semi-final, so we're erecting temporary stands to provide an extra 5,000 seats.

"Everybody round here is very excited and rightly so, it's a big sporting achievement for Ulster. Now we're attracting fans way beyond our traditional rugby audience. We even get kids coming in with their faces painted." Reid's only regret is that the French side have refused to play on Friday night. "We only discovered on Christmas Eve that we couldn't hold the game then because Stade Francais had complained. We'd already printed the tickets which was annoying, but there might be even more passion in the crowd now because they've been messed around. In any case, we're happy because the main thing was to get a home draw."

Jonathan Bell, one of several players who returned from England this season, echoes this sentiment. "Having Stade Francais at home is a huge advantage to us. We'll need to be at our best to beat them, but of all the draws they could have had this was the one they didn't want.

"We've had superb gates this season - if we'd played next Friday the number might have topped 20,000. Obviously the likes of Leicester are getting similar crowds, but most of the top English clubs aren't."

Inhospitable though Ravenhill on Friday nights is to visiting teams, this alone does not explain why, after a mediocre inter-provincial campaign in September which yielded three wins and three defeats, Ulster have suddenly blossomed.

"We had a good squad already, but the return of the players from England has been vital," said the 24-year-old centre whose third and final season at Northampton was marred by hamstring tears and homesickness. "We were used to full-time training and that experience helped the other boys. It's paid dividends, although we need more strength in depth and injuries meant we didn't have a settled team during the inter-provincials.

"On the field, we complement each other and know each other's style of play. We might be a professional team, but at the same time we have a good craic and we're the best of friends."

Apart from Bell, other international recruits from across the water have been the hooker Allen Clarke (also from Northampton), the full-back Simon Mason (from Richmond), the centre Mark McCall, fly-half David Humphreys and tight-head prop Justin Fitzpatrick (all from London Irish). Add the New Zealand-born flanker Andy Ward, now an Ireland regular, and it is clear this new-model Ulster is no patched-up old banger.

Bell hands much of the credit to Harry Williams, who gave up his job as a primary-school headmaster last summer to become the full-time coach. "Harry's a superb man manager and allows the players to have a major influence, especially the senior ones."

Williams, who previously coached Ulster from 1987 to 1991 before spending three years in charge of Ireland A, said: "We're more structured and better organised now than before. But, to be honest, our success has surprised me. We had a three-year plan when I took over but it's been realised much quicker than I thought it could be. I never doubted our ability but it was the speed with which we adapted to full-time rugby which was unexpected."

The only other Irish side to reach the last four were Leinster in the inaugural 1995-96 season when, as with this campaign, no English clubs were involved. This time, though, a momentum has been created which Stade Francais may struggle to resist.