DFP Header Area

JACKSON COLUMN: Ulster tipped to repeat 2004 heroics

Ever since the Irish began turning the rugby map of Europe into forty shades of green, they have never quite managed to get three teams into the last eight, writes Peter Jackson.


There is, they say, a first time for everything and no less a judge than Raphael Ibanez is backing Ulster to make it an emerald hat-trick when the quarter-final line-up for the Heineken Cup emerge at the end of next week.     

If that sounds like that a bold prediction, then it has to be said that the old hooker who led France into the 1999 World Cup final during the course of a 98-Test career appreciates exactly what it takes to get there.

Ibanez has been there and done it, not just in the quarter-finals but as a European champion in his own right, for Wasps against Leicester at Twickenham in 2007.   

“I am going for three Irish teams in the last eight,” he says, sticking his neck out and refusing to beat about the bush in his role as a Heineken Cup ambassador.

If the great Gallic warrior turns out to be something of a prophet, the RaboDirect PRO12 can look forward to supplying half of the quarter-finalists.  

Going into the penultimate round of the pool competition this weekend, two of the Irish runners are so far out in front that for either to fail now would probably require a stewards’ inqury.   

Munster and Leinster, the only unbeaten contenders from a field of 24, are not merely on course for the quarter-finals but for home ties as the likely top two seeds.    

In picking Ulster to win Pool 4 despite some serious Anglo-French competition, Ibanez can hardly be accused of sitting on the fence.   

To do so, the redoubtable northerners must beat Leicester in Belfast on Friday night and then cross the Channel to see off Clermont Auvergne, currently the second best team in France behind Toulouse.     

Nobody, of course, relishes the prospect of Ravenhill on a big European occasion and the Tigers’ visit for the first of the eliminators evokes memories of what happened when they were last there eight years ago.   

It was probably the most extraordinary match, or mis-match, I have seen since the advent of the European Cup.    

The occasion, beneath a sky of brilliant blue on a chilly Sunday lunchtime in January 2004, came at a time when the English nation was still paying homage to its World Cup-winning squad, seven of whom were from Leicester – Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Neil Back, Lewis Moody, Martin Corry, Dorian West and Will Greenwood.   

Those protesting outside the ground were motivated not by a fear of what might happen to Ulster but as members of the Rev Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church objecting to rugby on the Sabbath.     

How Leicester must have wished in hindsight that the protestors had got their way and called the whole thing off.  

Ulster had seen off no shortage of big teams but never had they scored such a landslide win over the English champions, 33-0.    

Johnson’s arrival from the bench ten minutes into the second half did little to stop the rot.   By then, Andy Ward had done his utmost to turn the Leicester cause into a losing one, Ireland’s Kiwi flanker having touched down two of Ulster’s four tries.   

Shane Stewart and Tyrone Howe provided the others and David Humphreys added the remaining 13 points from five goals.    

Dean Richards did his best to shrug it off as a ‘hiccup’ and while that sounded one of the under-statements of the season, Leicester’s then manager also said: “It can be put right.”

With precious little time to lick their wounds before the rematch seven days later, few believed him.    

Lo and behold, ‘Deano’ proved as good as his word. Leicester put it right to such pulverising effect that they thrashed Ulster 49-7, their five tries including a rare one from Johnson himself in what amounted to a 75-point swing from one week to the next.

Ironically, they succeeded only in knocking each other out. Stade Francais nipped through on the rails to ensure that neither Ulster nor Leicester went any farther and there is a danger of history repeating itself this time, especially if Clermont secure maximum points from their tie against Aironi in Italy.

The Michelin Men have swept all before them at home this season – nine wins out of nine including 30-pointers against Leicester, Perpignan, Begles-Bordeaux and Biarritz.   The Basques, still alive in Europe despite their domestic troubles, may only just have climbed off the bottom of the Top 14 but they hold the distinction of being the last team to beat Clermont at home, way back in November 2009.

Ulster’s sole concern at this stage will be to ensure they head towards the Massif Central in a position to win the pool, as Ibanez says they will.   

He also predicts that Toulouse, Saracens and the Cardiff Blues will join them as the three non-Irish pool winners.

The Blues must beat London Irish at the Madejski Stadium if they are to repair the damage of their pre-Christmas trip to Murrayfield.  

Edinburgh’s win sends them to Paris knowing that a double over Racing Metro will put them within sight of ensuring Scottish representation in the last eight for the first time since the capital city got there in 2004 only to be stopped in their tracks by Toulouse.

Whether the quadruple winners make it into the last eight for the 14th time in 16 seasons hinges on a rapid recovery from the shock of losing at home to Harlequins before Christmas.    

The French champions will demand they start the process with nothing less than the maximum five points at home to Connacht before their concluding pool tie at Gloucester the following weekend.