Rugby Union: Ulster revel in magic of Europe

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The Independent Online
Ulster 33 Stade Francais 27

THERE MAY have been a hundred reasons why the English clubs felt they could not participate in this season's European Cup and one or two of them might even have bordered on the legitimate, but was there really an issue of such drop-dead importance that it justified them relinquishing their seat in rugby's palace of varieties?

This breathtaking contest at Ravenhill confirmed, if confirmation were still needed, that when the parlour politicians of the Premiership implemented their boycott, they displayed all the judgement and foresight of the average amoeba.

Someone should distribute a video tape of Saturday's semi-final to every rugby home in Bath, Newcastle, Leicester and Watford, where Saracens have conjured a whole new audience out of thin Hertfordshire air, together with a note bearing the simple message: "Hey suckers, come see what you're missing." It would then be richly amusing to sit back, Geiger counter in hand, and register the shockwaves spreading towards those boardrooms where the walk-out plan was hatched.

Sir John Hall, Nigel Wray and their fellow refuseniks should quickly understand that Eurosceptism has as little going for it in rugby as it has in business; that when they threw their wallets behind Little England, they misread the runes and misjudged the zeitgeist. Where they got it absolutely correct was in Belfast, with their aggressive recruitment policy and hard-sell marketing. It would be wrong to suggest that Ravenhill's uniquely hostile acres had never hosted a more intense, emotion-shredding 80 minutes of rugby. Assuredly, it had. But only once and a long time ago. In 1948, to be exact, when Ireland beat Wales 6-3 to win their first and only Five Nations Grand Slam.

"Jesus, I was nervous," admitted Simon Mason, whose 18 points, generally kicked at the most acute psychological moments, derailed the high-speed French locomotive known as Stade Francais and left their assumption of European pre-eminence stranded in the sidings. "We all read the papers during the week and there was so much about Stade Francais, about how unbelievably strong they were, that I was left thinking: `What if we're hopeless? What if we capitulate in front of 20,000 people?' But when we walked out of the dressing-room and into all that noise, I knew there would be no capitulation. Yes, they were very, very strong. But the try just after half-time swung it our way."

Ah yes, the try. Or that try, as it has already been christened. In 10 sweet seconds of luminous, inspirational rugby, David Humphreys, the Ulster captain, shook the French champions to the tips of their expensively manicured toenails and, perhaps, breathed new life into his own international career. Lumbered with a fairly useless piece of scrummage possession inside his own 22 - for all their bravery, the home front row were decimated at the set-piece - the clever little outside-half chipped Thomas Lombard so accurately that his own blind-side wing, Sheldon Coulter, was able to field the ball on the full, draw Sebastien Viars into the tackle and return the ball to his looping colleague, who pinned back his ears and ran fully 65 metres to the right corner.

"Coming as it did within three minutes of the restart," explained Humphreys, "it said to Stade Francais: `You may think you've got this one in the bag, but we can play some rugby too, you know.' I'll never forget the noise from the crowd, which was phenomenal. From there on in, I was able to say to the team: `Just imagine how it will be if we win. It's got to be worth fighting for'. And we fought, every inch of the way. I'm really very proud, not least because we won the game by playing more rugby than the opposition. Sure, I stuck the ball in the air on occasions, but that was just to get the crowd going. If you look at the match dispassionately, we played some very imaginative stuff out there."

More imaginative than their opponents, certainly. Stade Francais made such a virtue of maintaining their fragile discipline in bearpit surroundings that the effort appeared to neutralise every other aspect of their game.

Overwhelmingly powerful at scrum and maul, where Sylvain Marconnet underlined his status as the outstanding front-row prospect in world rugby before falling victim to one of the more bizarre substitution decisions of the season, they manufactured two close-range tries for Christophe Juillet and another for Marc Lievremont.

Yet there was no width, and even less wit, to the French threequarter play, largely because Christophe Lassucq and Diego Dominguez succeeded in confusing themselves rather than the opposition. Viars, an international of considerable experience, defended like a novice, while Lombard, the tournament's leading try-scorer, looked woefully short of ideas. Although their tight forwards brought them back to within four points on the hour and within three with 12 minutes left on the clock, Mason finally kicked the life out of them with a penalty from the best part of 50 metres.

"We spent two whole weeks preparing for rain, wind, mud, slime and filth," groaned Richard Pool-Jones, the energetic Englishman who inhabits the Stade Francais open-side flank. "What did we find in Belfast? Sunshine, a gentle breeze and a nice wide pitch. Perfect rugby conditions, really. The really depressing thing is that we didn't have the nous, the basic common sense, to throw all the wet-weather preparations out of the window and play our natural game. It's a bad day for us, that's for sure, but how can you complain when the better side wins? They played more rugby than us. End of story."

It is not the end of the Ulster story, of course; the final, against Colomiers, will be played in Dublin at the end of the month and somehow, it seems a more romantic prospect than the fifth round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup. Still, the English are in no position to beef about it now. As they say in all the best quiz shows: you have to be in it to win it.

Ulster: Tries McKinty, Humphreys; Conversion Mason; Penalties Mason 5; Drop goals Mason, Humphreys. Stade Francais: Tries Juillet 2, Lievremont; Conversions Dominguez 3; Penalties Dominguez 2.

Ulster: S Mason; S Coulter, J Cunningham, J Bell, A Park; D Humphreys (capt), A Matchett; J Fitzpatrick, A Clarke, R Irwin (G Leslie, 54), M Blair, G Longwell, S McKinty, A McWhirter (D Topping, 33), A Ward.

Stade Francais: S Viars; A Gomes, R Dourthe, C Mytton, T Lombard; D Dominguez (capt), C Lassucq; S Marconnet (S Simon, 50), L Pedrosa (V Moscato, 50), P De Villiers, H Chaffardon, D George, C Moni, C Juillet, R Pool-Jones (M Lievremont, 50).

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).