EVER SINCE ULSTER managed to battle out a narrow victory against Leicester in the Heineken Cup’s opening round, the knives have been out.
Even when they provided a shock result by comprehensively out-playing Montpellier in round two, the doubters have persisted; ‘ah, they’ll be found out in Welford Road’.
Well, they went to Leicester and put in a performance that surpassed even the ‘perfect day’ in the south of France.
Andrew Trimble admitted this month that everything went right during the round two win in Montpellier. In Leicester they had to dig deep and that’s what made Saturday night’s 19 -22 result more impressive than any of their previous trips outside of Ireland.
In each half they took all Leicester could throw at them, but even when kicks began flying out on the full and the ball refused to bounce their way, Ulster kept their cool and battled back; first from six points, and then 10 points.
Head coach Mark Ansombe has been key in maintaining that emotional balance. Following the disappointment of missing out on a fourth try and bonus point at home to Montpellier, the Kiwi was quick to remind the public and his team that Ulster were the last unbeaten team in Europe for a reason. He wasn’t worried about tries, he trusted his defence and stuck firmly to the line that six wins out of six would suffice.
From here on in that is certainly the case. Just as they did in 1999 and 2012, Ulster have been given a draw which will not require them to travel outside of Ireland before the final.
In ’99, Toulouse and Stade Francais came to Ravenhill and were beaten before the entire northern province flooded Lansdowne Road for the final against Colomiers.
13 years later, their next final appearance brought Ulster to Limerick for the famous quarter-final win over Munster – a victory that set up another Lansdowne day for the semi-final visit of Edinburgh.
Indeed, a knock-out win outside of Ireland is still one historical footnote this team has yet to change. Saracens stand between them and a home semi-final and many will look to last year’s quarter-final in Twickenham as evidence that the Premiership club are a superior side.
However, it’s not that simple. Not only will the northern province have home advantage against a side who have never travelled for a Heineken Cup quarter-final before, Anscombe’s squad will be one year older, wiser and cooler.
Most importantly, when you look back at last year’s meeting between the sides you will notice important incidents instances in the second quarter which had a massive bearing on the momentum of the game. A missed Ruan Pienaar penalty at 3 – 0; a Jared Payne pass deflected into touch by Ernst Joubert, but awarded as a line-out to Saracens and duly converted into a try-scoring maul.
Not only are game-turning incidents such as that unlikely to be repeated with the TMO in effect at Ravenhill, Ulster as a unit have shown that they have the mental strength to bounce back.