Rugby Union: Mason in dreamland

European Cup: Ulster's underrated heroes dig deep to hold off the best of France and create history
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The Independent Online
Ulster 33

Stade Francais 27

STUDENTS of history, and Ulster is synonymous with the subject, will regard this sensational victory as one of the great moments in Irish rugby. Not so much a red letter day as a red hand salute.

Ulster, written off in the European Cup, particularly after beginning their campaign with a draw and a defeat, became the first Irish side to reach the final after a truly heroic performance against Stade Francais at Ravenhill.

It was an epic semi-final during which the wit of David Humphreys, the controlled fury of the forwards and the goal kicking of Simon Mason were just enough to overcome the superior strength of the French champions. There was another factor which cannot be under estimated - the fanatical support of 20,000 Ulstermen. Whilst the 80-minute barrage of noise lifted Ulster, it had the reverse effect on Stade Francais who, apart from when they applied their punishing rolling mauls, were never allowed a moment's peace.

For the final on 30 January, Ulster move from Belfast to Lansdowne Road, Dublin, to meet another French club. The French have said that unless the English clubs, who boycotted the Cup this season, re-enter the competition, they will almost certainly withdraw. In the event, thank God for Ireland's participation. As for England, it is their loss.

On the ground where Ireland completed their one and only Grand Slam in the Five Nations more than 50 years ago, Ulster's achievement probably ranks alongside Munster's famous victory against the All Blacks in 1978. Above all this was a triumph of belief over substance.

In the quarter-finals Stade Francais had demolished Pontypridd 71-14 while Ulster had beaten Toulouse 15-13. Stade Francais, who rested their players from the French championship last weekend, did not come to Belfast to lose. England or no England, winning the European Cup was Stade Francais' priority.

Ulster have been reinforced this season by the return of players from the English Premiership, including their influential captain Humphreys. Yesterday Humphreys, who has not featured regularly in the national side this season (only two of the Ulster team played against the Springboks in November), scored a timely try early in the second half to preserve a lead his team never lost, although it was frequently threatened. "His touch of brilliance made all the difference," Harry Williams, the Ulster coach said. "The timing was crucial."

Ulster, who led 11-3 midway through the first half, were in desperate defence when they went in at half-time 11-10 ahead. Two minutes after the restart, Humphreys, who was always under intense pressure from the French back row, had little option but to chip ahead from deep in his own half and Sheldon Coulter on the wing did brilliantly to catch it and draw the defence before releasing Humphreys down the right. The cauldron erupted.

"I can't say enough about the crowd," Humphreys said. "There was no way we were ever going to lie down. These people used to come here as spectators, now they come as supporters."

In the light of the Toulouse experience (Ulster prefer to play their matches on a Friday night under floodlights), Stade Francais insisted on a switch to the Saturday. It made no difference. Ulster wanted wind and rain. Instead they got sunshine and a firm pitch. It made no difference.

Mason, the tournament's leading points scorer, put Ulster 6-0 ahead after 10 minutes with a penalty and a magnificent drop goal from near the touch line. Ulster, under pressure in the scrum, somehow managed to manhandle their way over from a rolling maul with Stephen McKinty getting the try. After 32 minutes the power of the Stade Francais forwards told at a scrum at the Ulster line and Christophe Juillet crashed over. Diego Dominguez, who had earlier kicked a penalty, converted to cut Ulster's lead to a point.

The opening of the second half was a dream for Ulster. After Humphreys' try Mason landed another penalty and Humphreys another drop goal. In the space of nine minutes Ulster went from 11-10 to 24-10. They didn't have to wait long for the backlash. Juillet got another smash and grab try and when Dominguez added a penalty in the 57th minute Ulster's lead was down to four points.

However, whenever they were on the ropes they managed to throw a left hook. Mason banged over two long-range penalties before Marc Lievremont scored another close-quarter try. Dominguez, whose goal kicking was almost on a par with Mason, converted to make it 33-27 but the Ulster full-back had the final, raucous word with his fifth penalty, taking his total to 20 points.

Just before the end the crowd were asked not to run on to the pitch. King Canute had more success against the sea.

l Colomiers, making their European Cup debut after winning the Shield in 1997-98, will face Ulster in the final after beating Perpignan 10- 6 in an all-French semi-final. Playing in front of a 30,000 crowd at their Stade Selery ground, Colomiers trailed 6-3 at half-time with Benoit Bellot kicking two penalties for the visitors and Laurent Labit replying with one for the home team. The match was decided after the interval when 19- year-old David Skrela scored a try which he converted himself.

Ulster: S Mason; S Coulter, J Cunningham, J Bell, A Park; D Humphreys (capt), A Matchett; J Fitzpatrick, A Clarke, R Irwin (G Leslie, 50 min), M Blair, G Longwell, S McKinty, T McWhirter (D Topping, 71 min), A Ward.

Stade Francais: S Viars; A Gomes, R Dourthe, C Mytton, T Lombard; D Dominguez (capt), S Marconnet (S Simon, 47 min); L Pedrosa (V Moscato, 47 min), P Devilliers, H Chaffardon, D George, C Moni, C Juillet, R Pool-Jones (M Lievremont, 47 min).

Referee: J Fleming (Sco).