Ulster's march on Dublin for Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final will stir memories of the 1999 final they won in the city but this year's journey has a couple of odd diversions. The coach in charge of this first semi-final since that trophy-winning season knows already that he will soon be out of the job. More generally, having hit on a winning formula in Europe of grafting southern hemisphere prowess on to home-grown expertise, each of Ireland's main provinces is about to rewrite the rules and reduce the overseas influence.
"From the outside looking in, it must look like a very strange decision," said Ulster's Ireland centre Paddy Wallace of the elbowing aside of Brian McLaughlin into looking after the academy with New Zealander Mark Anscombe installed as head coach this summer. "But we have to trust in the management bringing in players and it's the same with coaches." The former role is down to David Humphreys, the fly-half and captain when Ulster won the cup in 1999, and now director of rugby. Humphreys is also silently stomaching the Irish Rugby Football Union's new player policy.
To summarise a complicated approach that does not apply to Connacht, there will be a limit of one non-Irish-eligible player per position across Leinster (the 2009 and 2011 Heineken Cup winners), Munster (champions in 2006 and 2008) and Ulster. "The success of Ireland flows down to provincial teams who would all be operating and existing under a deficit without the financial support of the IRFU," explained a Union spokesman. "It will affect some of the re-contracting [of overseas players]. The policy is not about hindering the provinces as we want to aim for success at both provincial and international level. It's an Irish solution to an Irish model."
So a menacing-sounding Player Contracting Review Group will pore over contracts, and this is where the detail becomes blurred, with clarity needed over what happens with injured players and other loopholes.
Ulster's first quarter-final since 1999 last season, and emerging second from a pool won by Clermont Auvergne this time to knock out Leicester and win away at Munster, featured five South Africans, an Australian and two New Zealanders. No one is prepared to say whether Pedrie Wannenburg – the beast of a No 8 whose high-quality performances in these last two seasons epitomised the South African influence – is leaving for a better offer or because the new rules oblige the province to move him on.
What is known is that Wannenburg and the short-term signing Stefan Terblanche will be replaced like for like by two returning Ulstermen: the No 8 Roger Wilson (from Northampton Saints) and Ospreys' Wales and Lions wing Tommy Bowe.
Clearly the Union's intention is to spend money soundly. Former Munster and Ireland flanker Alan Quinlan said this week that top overseas players earn upwards of £220,000 even though the four provinces' budgets combined is less than Toulouse's.
Jonny Bell, Ulster's defence coach who played in the '99 final, said: "Ulster have been incredibly smart and fortunate with David Humphreys' recruitment based on bringing in world-class players. All our signings are not just fantastic players, they're fantastic individuals off the field. They're driven, and they come from a winning, successful culture. Pedrie has played something like 50 out of 54 games, he's unbelievably durable, plays well every week."
Johann Muller has been a fine captain while fellow Springbok Ruan Pienaar kicked three huge penalties to help beat Munster two weeks ago. Despite the ban imposed on John Afoa for a tip tackle, the red hand gang will be favourites against Edinburgh at Aviva Stadium, having beaten them twice in the league this season.
Wallace was a student in the crowd for the '99 final at Lansdowne Road, and has played in Europe since 2001. He welcomed the return of Bowe and Wilson, whatever the change in emphasis. "There was a core group of us who went through the tough times," he said, referring to the likes of Steve Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble who resisted offers from abroad, "and it's more satisfying for us than for anyone else to do this now. No one blamed Tommy for going, he flourished at the Ospreys and his profile's through the roof. We're glad to get a player of his class back."
And Muller had a say in the sensitivity regarding McLaughlin. "As soon as it was announced, Brian took it away from us," said Wallace. "He made a pledge not to talk about it any more, and Johann said that was it, draw a line under it and move on."
Ulster's South Africans
Johann Muller This season's captain joined in 2010. Played for Sharks, led Natal to first Currie Cup in 12 years in 2008, and has 24 caps for Springboks.
Ruan Pienaar Son of Springbok full-back Gysie Pienaar, signed from Natal in 2010. Scrum-half, has won 51 caps in five positions. Three huge penalties in quarter-final defeat of Munster.
Pedrie Wannenburg Hefty back-rower signed from Blue Bulls in 2010, with 20 caps. Will depart this summer.
Stefan Terblanche Vastly experienced full-back/wing/centre with 37 caps from 1998-2003. Recruited by Muller on short-term deal in December.
Robbie Diack Uncapped back-rower joined from Stormers in 2008.
And three from Down Under...
John Afoa All Black prop joined after 2011 World Cup. Brilliant in quarter-final but banned for dangerous tackle.
Adam D'Arcy Irish-qualified Australian full-back, grandfather from Tipperary. Joined from Sydney's Manly in 2010.
Jared Payne Uncapped full-back/centre joined from Auckland Blues last year.
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