Beating Leinster this Saturday and claiming European club rugby’s greatest prize can start a decade of dominance for Ulster Rugby, believes their back-row talisman Stephen Ferris.
Ulster, the 1999 winners, take on defending champions Leinster at Twickenham this weekend in the Heineken Cup’s first all-Irish final and although the Ulster men are firm underdogs against Joe Schmidt’s all-conquering outfit, Ferris believes an upset can send a signal to the rest of Europe about his side’s intentions to become continental heavyweights.
“We don’t mind Leinster having the favourites’ tag,” Ferris told the Irish Examiner. “They’ve been the top side in Europe for the past number of years and they’re a great side but Ulster have come a long way and we believe we’re getting somewhere near where Leinster are.
“And if we beat them at the weekend it will show European rugby that Ulster mean business for the next 10 years in professional rugby. So it’s just about making sure we perform on the day. There are two great teams, everybody knows everybody else so well and it should be a good ding-dong.”
Ferris has been in the form of his life this season, both for Ireland and Ulster, a contribution recognised by winning the province’s personality of the year award last Thursday night.
“I started my season in July and it’s been a season that feels like it doesn’t want to end,” he said. “On the other hand, you’re playing in finals and you actually don’t want it to end.
“So it’s been one of those seasons. At the World Cup we probably let ourselves down slightly in the quarter-final but we played some great rugby against Australia and hopefully we can build on that, going into what’s a tough tour down in New Zealand.
“There’ll be an Irish winner in the Heineken Cup final, hopefully an Irish winner in the league and that will be great leading into the summer tour.”
Having overcome his own injury demons last season following knee surgery, he pledged to try and banish his province’s lows of the recent past by carrying memories of those times into Saturday’s game, head coach Brian McLaughlin’s final match in charge.
“Obviously we’d love for him to walk away from the head coach [position] with him on top, that would be massive for him but also for all the players that have been involved with Ulster Rugby for the last five, six, seven years.
“We’ve experienced being down at the bottom or second bottom of the league and having your season over by February and it’s been awful some years. So I think we’re going into this for ourselves as well and making sure that when we run out onto the pitch we remember those days too, because looking back to there, a massive victory in the Heineken Cup would definitely give all the lads a lift.”
Beating Leinster though, will mean Ferris having to score a personal first against Ulster’s provincial cousins.
“We don’t have a great record against Leinster and I haven’t actually beaten them once in my professional career, which is disappointing. So it will be interesting.
“I haven’t played against Sean O’Brien for a very long time, Jamie Heaslip also, back-row colleagues of mine, and it’s very rarely both teams get to play against each other at full strength. Declan Kidney likes to pull different players from different games and when he does that, it’s usually against each other of the provincial sides. So it will be great to have the best XV of Ulster against the best XV of Leinster and it should be a great match.
“There’s no doubt that we believe we can win the match, It’s just about making sure we perform on the day. We’ve had great support all the way through the tournament and we’ve played some fantastic rugby and I’m sure we won’t let ourselves down in the final.”
Ferris is also wary that if Ulster do win, they do not commit the same errors that followed the northerners’ previous Heineken Cup success in 1999, when the province was eliminated in the pool phase.
“The next year after 1999 we didn’t play well and with success you’ve got to back it up. We didn’t do that back in those days. So last year we had a good season, got to the last four in the league and got ourselves into the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup, and at the start of this season we talked about how we had to build on the success of last year and make sure that we keep building.
“Back then we went back to being pretty rubbish again so this year, we’ve missed out on the league play-offs by a win, more or less, and we’re up for another cup this weekend so hopefully when we win the final, next year is another season where we build on that and keep building like other sides do, like Leinster and Leicester.”
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