Rugby Union: Irish prepared for miracles

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GERRY ADAMS and David Trimble are expected to share the same VIP box overlooking the Lansdowne Road bearpit in Dublin this afternoon and in a perfect world, Ulster would win the European Cup with the last kick of the game and send the two men heading arm in arm towards Kitty O'Shea's for 58 pints of you know what and a table-thumping chorus of "Get 'Em Down, You Zulu Warrior". Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But then, who gave the white-shirted no-hopers from Ravenhill an earthly of making the final? Maybe one miracle will lead to another.

There has been a holy bible-full of miracles already this season. Smeared all over southern France by Toulouse in September - Ulster lost 39-3 at Les Sept Deniers that day and were distinctly fortunate to go home with the three - they recovered their wits sufficiently to record a five-point victory over the French aristocrats in the return match and set up a third meeting in the last eight.

Stunningly, Ulster then repeated the feat, winning 15-13 in a howling Friday night gale. Staggeringly, they then fought a famous rearguard action to dump the supposed tournament certainties, Stade Francais, on their illustrious derrieres at the semi-final stage. Talk about your name being on the cup.

Indeed, the predestination theorists find it impossible to believe that the unknowns of Colomiers, a nondescript, communist-controlled municipality situated in the heavily industrialised suburbs of Toulouse, will fare any better than their heavyweight countrymen. Colomiers is not a traditional union stronghold; it is not a Beziers or a Perpignan or a Pau. Its rugby club was founded as recently as 1963 and the number of home-grown internationals can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. Until last season, when Jean-Luc Sadourny's side beat Agen to win the European Conference (a competition for also-rans), they had never won a brass franc.

In the great firmament of French rugby, Colomiers are a satellite rather than a planet. Which is precisely why they could send the Irish favourites into the black hole of defeat today. Like Brive before them - and who can forget the massacre they inflicted on Leicester two years ago? - Colomiers happily conceal their talents behind a cloak of anonymity. Ulster know all about Sadourny, one of the world's most accomplished full-backs, but are dangerously ignorant of Laurent Labit, Patrick Tabacco, Stephane Peysson and the rest of the low-profile operatives whose precision work over five unforgiving months has guided their club to the biggest occasion in its brief and hitherto unremarkable history.

And in one very pertinent sense, it is history that bars Ulster's road to the title. The Heineken Cup, as it was known before the politicians started interfering, was for three years the exclusive property of those who travelled furthest to challenge for it. Toulouse beat Cardiff at Cardiff Arms Park to win the inaugural competition in 1996, while Brive - given no chance whatsoever - gave Leicester what for at the same venue the following year. It was the same story last January, when Bath crossed the Channel and staged the smash and grab raid to end them all by beating the holders in Bordeaux. Home advantage? Home disadvantage, more like.

Worryingly for something approaching 48,000 of this afternoon's 49,000 crowd, Colomiers are strong in Ulster's most obvious area of weakness; they have two internationals, Stephane Graou and the state-of-the-art hooker Marc Dal Maso, in their front row and their presence should ensure another 80 minutes of reverse gear discomfort for the Irish scrummage. Both Tabacco, perhaps the most effective line-out forward in the tournament, and Fabien Galthie, the former international scrum-half, passed late fitness tests yesterday. And although Mickael Carre's hamstring restricts him to bench duty, Jerome Sieurac proved a more than adequate midfield performer in the tight semi-final victory over Perpignan.

Still, Ulster have one or two match-winners of their own: Simon Mason, always a reliable goal-kicker, has been in golden boot form these last few weeks and if the French start getting up the nose of Clayton Thomas, the international referee from Wales, they will be made to pay for their indiscipline in the hard currency of penalty points. And what of the fly- half David Humphreys, whose resourceful captaincy in the semi-final was overshadowed only by his own play-making ingenuity? Another virtuoso effort today will surely send him scurrying helter-skelter into the Ireland side for the Five Nations opener with France next weekend.

Ulster badly need to go points up in the first quarter, for if they allow Colomiers the luxury of a settling-in period, the Frenchmen will have it topped and tailed by the hour mark. It has been a strange old tournament, though; Ulster's march has more than neutralised the effects of the English boycott and left an entire nation wondering whether this whole adventure was somehow meant to be. "Above all, it's a matter of keeping our feet on the ground," mused Humphreys yesterday. Yes. And Dublin ground at that. Who would have predicted it, back home in Belfast?


at Lansdowne Road

S Mason. 15 *J-L Sadourny

S Coulter 14 M Biboulet

J Cunningham 13 S Roque

J Bell 12 J Sieurac

A Park 11 B Lhande

*D Humphreys 10 L Labit

A Matchett 9 F Galthie

J Fitzpatrick 1 S Delpuech

A Clarke 2 M Dal Maso

R Irwin 3 S Graou

M Blair 4 G Moro

G Longwell 5 J-M Lorenzi

S McKinty 6 B De Giusti

A Ward 7 P Tabacco

T McWhirter 8 S Peysson

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).

Kick-off: 2.45pm (BBC1). * captain

Replacements: 16 S McDowell 17 B Cunninngham 18 S Bell 19 D Topping 20 S Duncan 21 G Leslie 22 R Weir

Replacements: 16 S Milhas 17 D Skrela 18 M Carre 19 P Pueyo 20 P Magendie 21 R Tremoulet 22 R Nonnes.