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Ulster's long wait is almost over

Stephen Watson | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 21 January 2011

It has been a long wait since 30 January 1999. That was the day Ulster lifted the European Cup at the old Lansdowne Road. Since then they have never qualified for the knock-out stages of the competition.

This weekend, however, I expect Ulster to carve out that all-important win against Aironi which will take them into the quarter-finals.

It is certainly not a foregone conclusion, but Ulster have beaten Aironi twice this season and their form away from home has much improved - notably those wins on the road against Cardiff, Treviso and Bath before Christmas.

Will there be more scenes of celebration after Ulster play Aironi on Saturday?

A runners-up spot in the group is guaranteed with a four-point victory, a bonus point win may just secure a home draw in the last eight - depending on what form Bath turn up in for their match against Biarritz.

Last week's success at Ravenhill reminded me of those famous European triumphs almost 12 seasons ago which helped propel Ulster to the cup win.

Toulouse, the most successful team in the competition, were beaten twice and Stade Francais once.

The supporters played an immense part on those occasions - and they did again last week. I made the point to David Humphreys this week and he wholeheartedly agreed.

"Absolutely fantastic" was how he described the efforts of the fans. And Ulster's current Director of Rugby should know - he was, after all, one of the inspirational leaders of 1998/99.

I would use the same words to describe the team's display against Biarritz. It may not have been perfect but who cares?

I have been bemused this week reading the inquest into Ulster's performance and listening to the criticism of their inadequacies. For me, it was simply about getting a win against quality French opposition - last year's beaten finalists incase you had forgotten - and keeping qualification hopes alive.

When Ian Humphreys booted over his third superb penalty of the game it was job done. Best performance of the season? I think so.

Yes, Ulster squandered try scoring opportunities in the second half, lacked composure at times, were not clinical enough on the opposition line and did not secure a bonus point.

But balance that with a superb first-half performance which nailed the French to their own half and limited them to just six points, an heroic second half defence in weather which best suited the oppositions bigger pack despite what many thought, and the character shown by the players.

A winning habit is often more important than how a team actually plays. And belief is what Ulster has in abundance right now. Belief they can go to Italy and win, belief they can make it out of the group.

And that, for me is what really matters. Of course, I would love Ulster to run in four dazzling tries against Aironi, but to be honest do you really mind what the the performance is like this Saturday? I would settle for a 3-0 win, qualification and more European dreams.

For now.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Here here Stevo. C'mon the Red and white Army ........ and give this country some good news to talk about for a change. Well done to BMcL. Has to take the credit for the turn around he has done to this team. It was a mess when he took the job on. The jury was out on him, but what a start to the season they had and in the words of JT, lets hope the fat lady is clearing her throat and pciking through her song book.

    MB

  • Comment number 2.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 3.

    Steven lets sort the football saga once and for all. if someone from NI wants to play for the ROI that is their perogative. The IFA should get off the fence on this one. Good Friday says you can play for either and FIFA agree so give it over! Also the idea of compensation for players switching to the ROI is laughable. When Ian dowie played for NI ...were the english FA compensated?

    It makes me laugh to see banners proclaiming the ROI is 'stealing' players!! If NI isn't good enough they are perfectly entitled to make a switch to ROI get over it!!

    Also niceto see the true NI fans booing our president some respect they showedand given the week that was in it..Best fans in the world...NOT!!

 

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