Rugby Union: Mason carves Ulster momument

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The Independent Online
Ulster 21 Colomiers 6

STITCH TOGETHER every Ulster flag waved from the ringside seats and terrace-top eyries of Lansdowne Road on Saturday and you would probably have enough material to cover the road from Belfast to Dublin in red and white.

There were, however, things that could not be covered up in the immediate aftermath of this fourth, and least compelling, of the European Cup finals played since 1996 and one of them was the righteous anger of Harry Williams, a 55-year-old schoolteacher from County Down.

"I consider it disrespectful in the extreme to suggest we've won this title only because the English clubs chose to boycott the competition," pronounced the Ulster coach. "We'll play any English team that cares to come across to Ravenhill, or anywhere else for that matter." Williams, a sober sort who planned to spend today retiling his kitchen floor rather than nursing a hangover, was most put out by the suggestion that a Leicester, a Saracens or a Bath, shamefully forced to concede their title without a fight, would have strangled his side's ambitions at birth.

In many ways, he was perfectly justified in defending the honour of his side. No team from these shores had ever seen off three different French sides in the course of a European Cup campaign, and if the baffled and befuddled suburbanites of Colomiers were no great shakes at the weekend - to be brutally frank, they were desperate - not even the most myopic Little Englander would dare apply the pushover tag to Toulouse or Stade Francais.

It was not all down to the infamous Irish weather, either, for both the semi-final and final were played in decent enough conditions. Richard Pool-Jones, the Stade Francais flanker, had it absolutely right when he said before his side's visit to Ravenhill: "You're either European champions or you're not. In five years time, who will remember the boycott?"

But, purely on the evidence of Saturday's sterile encounter, enriched only by Simon Mason's nerveless marksmanship and the rugged defensive work of Andy Ward and Jonathan Bell, this competition will be dead within a year if a rapprochement with the English fails to materialise. There was no earthly point in Syd Millar, one of Ireland's International Board delegates, stomping around the corridors of Lansdowne Road with a face as dark as thunder berating the snooty rich kids of the Allied Dunbar Premiership - "They should bloody well decide if they're in or out," he fumed - when he, like everyone else, knew that the tournament's future was hanging by a bootlace. Diplomacy, Syd. It's all about diplomacy.

He might take a lesson or two from the Colomiers hierarchy, who were positively George Mitchell-ish in their response to the unsympathetic refereeing of Clayton Thomas, the Welsh official who awarded the Frenchmen a kickable penalty after four minutes and then proceeded to whistle them clean off the island for the remaining 76. "We feel that at certain strategic moments in the game, the referee was against us," conceded Philippe Ducousso, the coach. "He cost us perhaps 12 points, just by allowing their back row to play as they did." But that was the extent of the moaning.

Colomiers were too embarrassed at the paucity of their own performance to beat that drum any louder.

There were indeed two sides on view at Lansdowne Road, but neither of them were French. There was Ulster, as in the team, full of aggressive intent and positively brimming with passionate derring-do. And then there was Ulster, as in the rest of the province; the crowd, almost 50,000 strong, acted like some Guinness-soaked Greek chorus as they reminded Colomiers at every conceivable opportunity of the inevitability of their defeat. If the scenes at the start were extraordinary, the scenes at the end were something else again. After receiving the trophy, David Humphreys and his colleagues bowed in homage to the sea of humanity that had flooded the pitch in front of them. Never was such homage so richly deserved.

Humphreys, so inspired and innovative in the victory over Stade Francais, was far more conservative on this occasion. His drop goal in the opening minute of the second half, the only green shoot in a sandstorm of Mason penalties, pretty much summed up the entire contest, coming as it did from a high-ball fumble from an out-of-sorts Jean-Luc Sadourny. For the rest of the afternoon, the clever little stand-off simply peppered the heavens with a series of hanging up-and-unders and waited for the French errors to accrue.

When Colomiers did manage to string the odd phase together - and such occasions were rarer than radium - they were either stopped dead by Ward and Bell, who both tackled magnificently, or interrupted by Thomas and his whistle. They might, for example, have ended the try drought late on when Mickael Carre crossed near the Ulster posts, but the referee found reason to deny them. Why? A forward pass, perhaps, or crossing in midfield? Ducousso, for one, did not have the foggiest.

More crucially, he also decided that the French forwards were guilty of mass obstruction as they ran a penalty from eight metres out on 31 minutes. A converted try then would have put them 10-9 ahead and sent them into the half-time team talk with smiles on their faces. As it was, Mason chipped over his fourth penalty a minute into first half injury time to open up a decisive nine-point advantage.

The whole of Ulster knew there and then that the day would be theirs and, although the second half was every bit as physical as the first, Ward and company were more than happy to spill a few pints of the red stuff in pursuit of the ultimate. "Three months ago, I would never have believed this could happen," admitted Williams, pale and quiet in his nervous exhaustion.

"In fact, I still can't believe it." Rugby's rank and file will also find themselves in a state of disbelief if, over the next three months, the men in suits fail to restore next season's tournament to its pan-European grandeur.

Ulster: Penalties Mason 6; Drop goal Humphreys. Colomiers: Penalties Labit, Carre.

Ulster: S Mason; S Coulter, J Cunningham (S McDowell h-t), J Bell, A Park; D Humphreys (capt), A Matchett; J Fitzpatrick, A Clarke, R Irwin (G Leslie 71), M Blair, G Longwell, S McKinty, T McWhirter (D Topping 75) A Ward.

Colomiers: J-L Sadourny (capt); M Biboulet, S Roque, J Sieurac, B Lhande (D Skrela 19); L Labit (M Carre 53), F Galthie; S Delpuech, M Dal Maso, S Graou, G Moro, J-M Lorenzi, B De Giusti, S Peysson (P Pueyo 67), P Tabacco.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).