Rugby Union: History gains upper hand

Andrew Longmore in Dublin watches a cup final struggle to match the day
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BY THE time the trains, the buses and the cars have returned wearily north, this will be translated into an epic day in Ulster sport. It was that and more. Lansdowne Road has rarely been a Protestant stronghold down the years, but yesterday the old stadium became a sea of red-and- white, its ageing corridors echoing to cries of "Ahlster", its outdated terracing submerged by flags displaying the bloody hand, symbol of the old kingdom of Ulster. And no one minded a jot.

The presence of David Trimble, Northern Ireland's first minister, signalled the significance of the occasion. Politicians do not give up their Saturday afternoons for nothing. But such has been the rolling momentum of this odyssey, differences were set aside in the name of a classic tale of Irish sport.

The ingredients will be thoroughly familiar to followers of sport across the Irish Sea. Early despair, an absence of expectation, then the slow dawning of a strange magic, of something unspoken and indescribable, something utterly Irish. David Humphreys, the inspirational captain, summed it up when he recalled the first four minutes of the opening group match in Edinburgh back in the autumn. Four minutes played, 14-0 down. Humphreys called his men to his side, but had nothing to say. The final of the European Cup seemed further away than a trip across Ireland's bitterest divide.

There was luck, too, that 38-38 draw against the Edinburgh Reivers and two home draws in the knockout stages, which brought Toulouse and Stade Francais crashing famously to the turf of Ulster. Most of the decisions by Clayton Thomas of Wales went their way yesterday as well. Long before the end, the French side had come to realise that the tide was sweeping them to oblivion. Colomiers will look at the 21-6 scoreline and wonder what happened to the game. It started and finished without them.

Yet the most critical decision had nothing to do with the romance from which Irish heroics usually stem. After their stuttering start, Harry Williams, whose decision to leave his post as a primary school teacher to become a full-time coach seemed to epitomise the do-or-die spirit of the campaign, discarded his part-timers and turned to his professionals. Training was switched from evenings to the afternoon and the hazy crazy bandwagon began to trundle with gathering speed to its final destination in the heart of Dublin. "The sons of Ulster marching to their destiny" as the announcer portentously greeted the final whistle.

In truth, this was a dismal game, ruined by over-fastidious refereeing and, mirroring victors and vanquished, largely devoid of character. For the first time, the danger to Ulster's hegemony came not from the class of Colomiers, but from within. The role of underdog has never been one forsaken for long by the Irish, let alone its most troubled province, but the pre-match game of pass the psychological parcel had advertised the fears of both sides. Neither wanted to be portrayed as the favourites.

Like Ulster, Colomiers have lived in the shadow of a more prosperous neighbour. A dormitory town on the outskirts of Toulouse, the residents have been as wide-eyed as the Ulstermen at the success of their rugby team. Once the hated Toulouse had been beaten, Colomiers needed little invitation to put one over their great rivals. Had they but asked, they might have been better prepared for the welcome which awaited them yesterday. They scored first, then succumbed to simple spoiling tactics.

Not until 55 minutes later did Mickael Carre, the substitute stand-off, double their tally and by then Simon Mason, a man with a name from middle England and a radar in his boots, had kicked the French to extinction.

Politics threatened to ruin the European Cup this season. In the joy of Ulster's victory, all divisions were forgotten. That perhaps is the ultimate triumph.