The Heineken Cup, or H Cup, if you’re from France, is one of the most prestigious rugby competitions in Europe; and to be known as the best team in Europe is something Ulster has had attributed to them – once.
The year was 1999. Lansdowne Road, Dublin was the venue and as Ulster faced French side, Colomiers, in the hotly anticipated final, Simon Mason and David Humphreys were the stars of the day as they landed the teams points, to bring the score to 21 – 6 and defeat one of the French ‘greats.’
Ever since then, the desire to feast at the to ptable has been something which has eluded Ulster. Their most sucessful campaign was last season, when they looked like they were destined for glory again as their campaign went down to the last day of the pool stages.
Ulster had won 4 of their 6 pool games, only losing narrowly away to Edinburgh and Stade Francais. Yet when the time came to decide who would progress further, it was as if the world was conspiring against Ulster. Not only were they agonisingly close to reaching the next stage of the competition, before being nudged out by Stade Francais by one point; it appeared they would be competing in the Amlin Challenge Cup instead. However, just like the Heineken, nothing happened in their favour and they too, were unable to qualify for the competition.
So, after being ousted from both competitions, Ulster had to face finishing another season without qualifying past the pool stages – the same pattern they’d developed since 1999. And questions were asked by fans across the province and beyond. What went wrong?
Well, for one, the unthinkable happened. If you had said at the beginning of the aforementioned weekend, that every other team which could have a hand in deciding Ulster’s fate, ultimately (in a roundabout way) would, no-one would have believed you. But it was true. Ulster were hoping Edinburgh would do them a favour and deny Stade Francais a losing bonus point, but were unable to do so, so Stade progressed. The same with the teams involved in the Amlin – it was the smallest of margins that separated the teams, which probably makes it all the more difficult to accept.
However, if you take away the bad luck the players were on the receiving end of, I think it would be fair to say that, for Ulster, they were their own undoing.
I don’t know how many occasions Ulster had to snatch as many points as they could from their matches, yet when the opportunities arose to grab any extra points, they didn’t go for them. A prime example of this was when Ulster faced Bath at The Rec. During the first half of the game, Danny Grewcock deliberately stamped on Stephen Ferris’ arm, and received a straight red card from the referee. For over 40 minutes, Ulster had a one man advantage, yet they still couldn’t manage to snag a bonus point try.
Why? There’s many theories floating around – lack of passion being one of them, lack of sheer aggression, and lack of leadership being another. And as much as I hate to say it, but this pattern of not acting on chances, could put an end to this seasons’ hope of getting out of the Pool stages too (if the Magners’ games have been anything to go by).
As the Heineken Cup reaches the third round of the competition this weekend, Biarritz are currently sitting at the top of the pool, closely followed by Bath, then Ulster – with only one point separating the two sides. Newly formed Italian side, Aironi, are struggling at the bottom of the pool, yet to score any points. Pool Four’s ‘double header’ is between Bath and Ulster and will be a vital two games for both teams involved as whoever wins will be set in excellent stead, and will look likely to progress further. According to old tradition anyway, when you are grouped with an Italian team.
Bath haven’t been playing particularly well this season, whereas Ulster have had their best start to a season for a number of years. Yet, with last weekends’ Magners’ League game cancelled, I think Bath will have benefitted from the longer break, whereas Ulster will have suffered.
To me, the Dragons’ game would have been vital going into the Heineken because the squad had just begun to re-build their confidence as a team, winning two away games on the trot. Now, with that momentum temporarily halted, it might be difficult for the team to hit the ground running again for the full 80 minutes.
So with the days to the third round counting down, and everyone focusing on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how events unfold, as Ulster should have an extra advantage of the home crowd behind them. Yet again, dependant on the recent inclement weather, will the game be able to go ahead at all?