WHEN DAVID HUMPHREYS landed a 40-yard drop goal in the final minute of the 2005/06 Celtic League season, it was widely predicted to be a turning-point.
Well, technically the prophets were right. Things did turn, although not in the way Mark McCall and Ulster fans envisaged. “Hopefully now we can kick on from this,” said the then Ulster coach after guiding his home province to its third trophy in the professional era.
We’re still waiting for a fourth. Way back on that May evening in south Wales, however, Ulster really did seem capable of going places. A young hooker called Rory Best had emerged while his contemporaries, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble, oozed class.
Further south, Leinster, at that stage, had one trophy on their CV; Munster were just after adding a third. Elsewhere in the Celtic League, rivals Ospreys had one title, Scarlets the same, while Connacht, Cardiff Blues and Glasgow had yet to win anything.
Fifteen years on, the landscape has changed. Along the way Connacht, Cardiff and Glasgow broke their ducks, Ospreys and Scarlets lived through a boom, then a bust, while Leinster now have eight Pro14 titles, four Champions Cups and a Challenge Cup on their honours board. As for Ulster, they’re still in sporting purgatory.
“For Ulster and for Dan (McFarland, their head coach), this is a really, really important game,” said former captain Rory Best of tonight’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Leicester (kick off 8pm, BT Sport).
Best celebrates Ulster’s win over Leicester in 2019. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“They want to win something and you wouldn’t know what this can be the catalyst for.”
If nothing else it’ll be a catalyst for changing the narrative. Here’s Stuart McCloskey, their talismanic centre, from a few weeks back: “It (the Challenge Cup) is obviously not the trophy we were aiming for at the start of the season.
“But it is a new goal for us and we’ll be trying our best to win it because it would be good to get that monkey off our back. We haven’t won anything since the league in 2006. It would be brilliant for us to get some sort of silverware.”
Rob Herring also talked about taking the next step; Sean Reidy spoke of harnessing energy into this often maligned tournament while Nick Timoney made a similar point after the quarter-final win over Northampton. “The main reason you play is to win stuff,” said Timoney. “Seeing other teams be successful, it’s tough when we haven’t been there for so long.”
As a head coach, Dan McFarland’s job goes beyond reading tactical dossiers. Sometimes the most important skill to have is the ability to read the room. That was why these words from earlier in the week were so interesting.
He was spot on.
Neither he nor his young team can be blamed for the sins of the past. If it is a journey of redemption they are on this evening, then the starting point isn’t 15 years ago but 20 weeks ago, the day their Champions Cup campaign came to an end in Gloucester.
Ian Madigan after the Gloucester loss. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Ulster had a ten-point lead in that game; the same advantage they had last week against Connacht. Each time they lost, as they did against Toulouse and Leinster (twice) this season. In all five of those matches they have been in front at some stage of proceedings.
There’s a lesson there for McFarland’s players about game-management. Having captain, Iain Henderson, available again, will fast-track their education, especially as Henderson has managed to play just three of Ulster’s 21 games this year – two separate injuries and two lengthy stints on international duty being the reasons why.
And while the team have been consistent in his absence, winning 16 out of 21 matches, there have been worrying trends.
In terms of their maul, they’re strong. In terms of their defence, they’re not – well, not always. Northampton nearly ended their Challenge Cup dream earlier this month; Toulouse and Gloucester most definitely did end their Champions Cup aspirations four months earlier. “We were a bit soft at times on the line,” McFarland said after last week’s defeat to Connacht. “We can fix that.”
They need to. Often in Europe, English and French teams have shown less commitment to the tournaments than Irish sides – Harlequins being the latest team to display such flakiness in the round of 16 game last month, making 14 changes to their team for Ulster’s visit to the Stoop.
Ulster had it easy against Harlequins. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Leicester, however, are in a drought of their own, eight years passing since their last trophy which is a comparatively long time for a club who were once serial champions. Interestingly their record against Ulster is poor – three wins from 10 previous meetings, the last of which saw Ulster defeat them in January 2019 to book a Champions Cup quarter-final spot.