WHEN ULSTER FINALLY retake the field at Lansdowne Road before 6pm this evening, they will know exactly what all the fuss is about.
With Jonny Bell and David Humphreys constantly knocking about the place, their last appearance at the address could hardly be easily forgotten.
January 1999: Ulster’s moment of glory.
“Dinger obviously likes to talk about it a lot, about that ‘spirit of ’99′,” says Chris Henry, referring to defence coach, Bell, by his nickname and deliberatly failing to disguise his weariness of hearing about the glory days.
“That was a very special year,” Henry added swiftly, “what they achieved. I think this year is a very special group of guys aswell and the team’s really (improved). It has been a long process, it hasn’t just happened overnight.”
While those lucky enough to be fit for Ulster this afternoon are out to add their own chapter to the history book, Henry has been consigned to the stands – a calamity of meeting Leinster eight days ago.
Talk to any of this Ulster group and you will find they possess unusual mix of intense motivation, confidence and the sense of just being happy to be involved at this stage. While Leinster have set the bar so high that they can only be deemed to fail unless they win the trophy; Ulster have soared above expectations.
The trouble now is, they must keep going.
Chris Henry cannot influence matters on the field. ©INPHO/PRESSEYE/Matt Mackey
When you read this the team will probably be milling around their hotel, trying to keep the minds busy. Before the big back row suffered his ankle knock, Henry looked ahead and gave an insight into how he and his team would try and prepare for the defining 80 minutes of their season, if not their career.
“If you think about the game too much and get too nervous you waste an awful lot of energy.
“We’d be very chilled out, have a leisurely morning and if it’s an evening kick-off we play a bit of cards or just chill out and watch TV. So we try not to get to buzzed up until leading into the warm-up, I suppose.”
Chilling out will not be so easily done when he doesn’t have an outlet to vent his nerves. He must sit and stew alongside John Afoa, but for Williie Faloon (his replacement at number seven) and 14 others, all the psyching up has already been done. Today is merely the chance to put it all to good use.
Nobody could exemplify the mood in the Ulster better than Andrew Trimble. When he faced his media obligations at the Aviva last week, he seemed almost out of breath after finally getting the chance to take in the stadium wearing his Ulster garb.
Breathless is just what some of their European displays have been this season, but Trimble, like the rest of the northern province, is not considering this as a flash-in-the-pan, it is the product of incremental improvement, as the winger explained once he sucked the oxygen in:
For a long time we believed that we were a good team, a quality team and we deserve to be performing at this sort of level. I think it’s only now that people are starting to believe what we’ve been saying.
Maybe it’s just because we’re starting to back up what we’re talking about; but there’s something happening. There’s a buzz, there’s an atmosphere and there’s something special happening in Ulster Rugby.
Something special is right, Pedrie Wannenburg spoke this week, keen to reiterate that this is Ulster’s biggest game for 13 years. Trimble, for one, does not cut the figure of a man prepared to let that chance pass him by.
“After playing for Ulster for seven, eight years it’s so exciting to be a part of it.
“Having spent five or six years in the darkness - every year banging your head against a brick wall – losing vital games that would lead to quarter-finals and just not quite making it.
“Now we’re there, we want to continue to push this and develop this atmosphere and develop this special feeling that’s going on in Ulster Rugby.”