Playing on European rugby’s most exclusive stage may be a rarity to Ulster but they pack more than enough experience to offset any big-game jitters according to Jonathan Bell who won the Heineken Cup with the province in 1999.
Leinster will travel to London armed by their recent Heineken Cup experiences but most of Ulster’s players can fall back on a catalogue of fixtures where the eyes of millions and, in some cases the world, have been upon them.
Four of their Irish internationals Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Tom Court — played a part in the Grand Slam clincher against Wales in 2009 while their overseas recruits come with CVs padded by World Cup, Super Rugby and Currie Cup deciders.
“We are green in terms of Heineken experience, but we have world-class players,” said Bell. “They are experienced in big occasions and dealing with what comes with that. Johann [Muller], Pedrie [Wannenburg], Paddy Wallace, Rory Best, they have international experience. The Heineken is different because in the northern hemisphere there is a huge Heineken focus.
“It means a lot. We have had to watch Leinster and Munster dominate Irish rugby. From an Ulster perspective, we have been the bridesmaids. We feel we deserve to be in this final and we deserve to be up there. There is no better way to make a statement than winning a European Cup final against your Irish rivals.”
Bell was man of the match 13 years ago when Ulster bettered Colomiers at a red-and-white bedecked Lansdowne Road and, along with Director of Rugby David Humphries, provides a link between then and now through his role as defence coach.
Ulster’s defeat of Edinburgh at the same Dublin venue in this year’s semi-final resurrected fond memories but the victory was tempered by the acceptance they struggled.
“Some of the guys were a little bit overawed by the occasion and the support but semi-finals are notoriously difficult on players. You are one step away and it’s the worst place to go out. People had also put us on a pedestal and said it was a foregone conclusion we would win. We knew that wasn’t the case. That experience is behind us now. We’re in this final and we’re underdogs — no doubt about it.”
The importance of Bell’s brief this week could hardly be overstated. Leinster’s attack play is spoken of in hushed tones. The try against Clermont in the semi-final when a hooker, a prop, a centre and full-back combined stands as proof of their all-round abilities.
“They were once criticised for having a stellar backline and not a hard edge up front. They have corrected that massively, so we will have to be very smart and physical with them, very patient and disciplined, because they are incredibly clinical when they get opportunities.
“That stands them above any team in Europe. If they get one chance they capitalise. We have to play in the right areas of the pitch. The best form of defence is attack. If you don’t have the ball, you can’t score. We will be striving to starve them of as much possession as we can.”
It is a tall order but tomorrow’s encounter cannot stand isolated. It has to represent a starting point.
“The year after we won it in 1999, we flopped. Since then, it has been a bit of a rollercoaster. We did win the Celtic League [in 2006], but in recent times overall it has been difficult. We have been trying to rebuild and we have been in transition. I think Ulster rugby is now on a good footing.”
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