Ulster draw strength from home comforts

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The Independent Online

Sometimes in sport there are events or matches that are must-win. Not the clichéd must-win of manager speak but the brutal must-win of if you lose you might as well go home and put your feet up. When Leicester Tigers march out on to the Ravenhill turf here today, they will be doing so knowing that their season rests on the next 80 minutes.

Such a situation at the fortress of old, Welford Road, would be met with a roar that would lift and inspire the team while cowing the opposition. Well, the Tigers are the opposition and they will be met with a roar but it will not be one of support.

"They'll definitely meet an atmosphere," declared David Humphreys, 32 and Ulster's pivotal fly-half, "but I can't believe a team of their experience will be affected by it, or not much anyway."

Even though it is a critical game for the twice champions of Europe who were recently scoreless at Northampton and lost at home to Gloucester last week? Surely the myth has been laid to rest.

"Exactly because they are twice champions of Europe," countered Humphreys, "and remember that this is an absolutely vital game for us. The Heineken Cup is the toughest competition in club rugby and to qualify you have to win the home games. Well, this is one of ours and come the end of the pool matches this group will be decided by bonus points. From the start we knew it was a tough one, Stade Français and Leicester together, but there is nothing really between any of us at the moment.

"I watched Leicester against Gloucester last week and they nearly beat one of the best teams in England. If we had their injury problems or players unavailable we wouldn't be able to put out a side. They still can - and a good one - and will give us a real contest."

A real contest. For years Irish rugby lived on very few of those, the odd emotional day with the national team and then weeks in the backwater of club rugby. The arrival of the provinces and professionalism was meant to change that, meant to ensure the best played the best.

"It has, undoubtedly," said Humphreys. "The rugby played now is totally different to that of five, 10 years ago. The main thing has been playing more games, for some many more games at a much higher level. Because of that the mystique that surrounded other countries, clubs or individual players has gone. When you play against world-class players a lot not only do you learn from them, you believe in yourself more."

But in two of Ireland's most recent big matches, England in March and France in the World Cup quarter-final, they have been thrashed, outplayed from the beginning.

"That French game was hugely disappointing," he admitted although his introduction for Ronan O'Gara coincided with a much-improved Irish performance and three tries, albeit consolation ones. "We really felt that after the performance against Australia in the group we could do well. Our initial plan, getting through the group, went well and then we really concentrated on a big effort for the French, but they just blew us away. It was terribly upsetting but we just have to play more and more of these big games, internationally and at club level, so as to learn to win them. When I started we would win one or two in the Five or Six Nations, now we lose one or two."

Winning the big games, though, is what champions do and invariably they have excellent foundations, whether it is administrative, resources or organisation. Does Ireland have these, or the clubs?

"Rugby in Ireland has great support," said Humphreys. "The Celtic League crowds for Ulster are around 7,000 and today will be packed out, but we do need to expand the game, expand the playing base and hopefully attract some of the Gaelic footballers. If we can do that then I think we will consistently compete with England and the rest because we will have more quality players to choose from."

As grand plans go it is a noble one, in fact a central tenet of the reasoning towards provincial rugby but one that demands success on the pitch to entice the kids.

"Absolutely, success is so important now and that is the challenge for the clubs in the Heineken Cup. We have to prove we can win it again but I believe overall the game is going in the right direction in Ireland," he said.

The right direction today is victory over the Tigers. When Ulster won the Heineken Cup back in 1999, the English clubs were voluntarily absent; a win today would be more than a marker, it would be a challenge - one that Humphreys is desperate for.

"These matches, maximum crowd, noise and atmosphere and great opposition - that's why we play. Thankfully, we just get to play them more often now."

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