Rugby Union: Ulster dream the impossible

European Cup: Heroes of last year's journey into history now carry an entire nation's expectations
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The Independent Online
THE ALARM rang at 6.45am, as usual. Harry Williams turned on the radio and listened to the thought for the day. "Some churchy thing" as he remembers it. Harry does not always listen so attentively, but today the voice was telling him about the power of community spirit, not a traditional theme in Belfast but one which Williams cares for and understands. He cannot recall the exact words, but the meaning of what followed was clear. The Ulster rugby team, the voice said, was a shining symbol of the forces for good in the province. Williams shuddered. He was not coaching a mere rugby team any more, with the defence of the European Cup beginning in Bourgoin on Saturday, he was guiding a whole community.

In Ulster, sporting achievement is too readily sucked into the threshing machine of politics, too often spat out as a sentimental celebration of unity. But Ulster's victory in the European Cup at Lansdowne Road in Dublin late last January strayed way beyond the borders of propaganda. So spontaneous was the spirit, so vibrant the triumph that the whole nation, north and south, Catholic and Protestant, truly rejoiced in the crazy Irishness of the whole damned journey. From Ebbw Vale through the Borders to Toulouse and back home to the cosy delights of Ravenhill, the Ulster story careered on, gathering followers of every persuasion until even the godfathers of the Gaelic Athletic Association, stern-eyed keepers of the traditional Catholic sports, deserted their western strongholds to see what all the fuss was about down in the east.

By the time Ulster reached Dublin for the final, the regular home gate of 2,000 had swelled to an army of 50,000, all barriers had been stormed and the red and white Gaelic flags were being raised alongside the flags of Ulster in common salute to sporting impossibility. The poor Frenchmen of Colomiers took one look at the forces arrayed before them and hauled up their own white flag. "I don't think they'd seen anything like it in their lives," Williams laughs. They were not the only ones. "The feelings and memories from that campaign will last a lifetime," David Humphreys, Ulster's inspirational captain, said. "I've never experienced anything like it before and probably won't ever again."

A respray for the toilet blocks and a gleaming new trophy cabinet are the only visible signs of change at Ravenhill, the home of the Irish Rugby Football Union (Ulster branch) where the miracle took shape. On a crisp morning, the talk is all of forgetting past glories, of wiping the slate clean and consigning the summer-long round of receptions and awards to the scrapbooks.

At the end of the training session, the players gather round Williams in the huddle which became the symbol of their progress last season. The huddle is easy. Recreating the sense of family which fostered it, with a repeat to perform, several new faces to absorb into the squad and mighty expectations to fulfil, that's the hard part. No player who began the season attending a memorial service for the victims of the Omagh bombing and ended it as the honoured guests of the Omagh and Strabane District Council could pretend to be untouched by their deeds.

"To get all those honours makes you very aware of your place within society," said Simon Mason, the Liverpool-born full-back whose penalties lifted Ulster to victory in the final. "When you're playing sport you can get carried away with the routine of playing and training and you can forget you are a part of people's emotions and feelings. It's quite an honour.

"I grew up in Liverpool where the footballers took all the recognition and the glory and to be a sports star in Ulster still shocks me a little. I have to pinch myself sometimes. But with that comes a responsibility. My great-uncle comes from Ulster but now lives in Dublin and he kept ringing me up and saying how brilliant our success was, so I knew what we were representing. Our aim now is for people to say, in 12 months' time, that Ulster weren't just a one- season wonder."

Williams, most of all, knows how hard that will be. The fairytale began to dissolve as soon as Bourgoin, Wasps and Llanelli were drawn in their group. Williams knows he cannot rely on the strange and heady concoction of nine months ago. Plan B back then was panic and Plan A, a simple unleashing of Ulsterness, drew heavily on a desperately thin squad. "We were only one injury away from total disaster," he says. A succession of agents have beaten a path to his door this summer, none selling him a duff player, of course. "Tortured me they have. All their players are superstars. But in recruiting new players I've tried very hard to keep it as an Ulster team. It's key that they have roots here and don't just clear off at the end of the season."

On Thursday, Ulster were expecting to unveil their new Fijian prop, except that he had disappeared somewhere between New Zealand and Heathrow, all 22 stone of him. No one seemed too bothered. He would turn up soon, they said.

The quiet authority of their coach was the source of Ulster's inspiration. All the players say so and when you speak to Harry Williams there is no questioning his strength. No one is entirely sure how he did it, least of all the man himself, but when the cup was won, Williams stood in the foyer of the team hotel, with his wife and son and daughter at his side, and realised how much all of their lives had been sacrificed to rugby's cause. He admits it brought a tear to his eye. And the day the team stood on the steps of the City Hall. "I thought, `Bill Clinton stood here two years ago. Surely only famous people get this sort of reception in Belfast.' Yet we were 20 or so ordinary guys who, a year ago, were teaching in schools, being dentists or whatever. That moment will stay with me forever."

For Williams, that constitutes an emotional outburst. Like his players, he is trying hard to shelve the memories and reorder his life. Not easy when the video of the triumph sold a staggering 170,000 copies and the local pub has instigated an Ulster rugby corner, complete with photographs and replica jerseys. Everyone just wants to talk about the past. "We set out to be closer to the community last year before we started, not for political reasons but because we wanted to bring rugby closer to the people," Williams says.

When he arrived for his second spell as Ulster coach, Williams instigated a three-year plan, but winning the European Cup, he says, would not have been part of a 10-year plan. Even more than last year, the team are entering uncharted emotional waters.

"One of the features of the Irish is that they always look back," he says. "It's half our problem. Everybody is saying winning the European Cup is in the past, but some are coping better than others with the whole thing. I know that by watching the players in training and comparing them with last year. It's a real concern that we've created something so big in Ulster that expectations have outgrown reality. The expectations now are incredible.

"What's exciting for me is that we're going into Europe this time with a better side than the last. We've recruited more runners in the backs so we're able to play a more expansive game. We might even reach Plan C or Plan D this year because we're better equipped to play whatever type of game we wish to play."

An application of the wrong chemical turned the Ravenhill pitch orange during the summer, forcing Ulster to play their early home games down the road at Queen's University, hardly the most auspicious start to a glorious new era for the champions. Munster, arch provincial rivals, had never won at Ravenhill but they won at Queen's, by a single point.

"That didn't help our love affair with the Ulster public," he says. Nor will defeat by Bourgoin. Winning has become more than a hope, it has become a duty. The man on the radio said so. "It's a tremendous burden of responsibility," Williams says. "We've got something going and we can't afford to let it die."

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