What sticks in your mind from 1999?
“The breakfast we had in the Berkeley Court at 9am and the buzz outside the windows of the hotel. We came down three or four days beforehand to do a lot of training so we missed a lot of the hype and we only picked it up that morning. That got the juices flowing! Travelling from the hotel to the ground, the bus was getting stopped in the streets. Then, we decided to do a bit of a lap before we came into the changing room to change shirts. Colomiers were still doing their warm-up and we ran right through the middle of them. The crowd just kicked off and you could see them thinking “oh dear, this is going to be a tough afternoon’. The game itself is a bit of a blur.”
Has the Heineken Cup moved on in stature since then?
“At the time it was hard to know what way it was going to go. It’s become massively commercial. It’s a massive world brand. For clubs to get to the final, financially, is huge. What comes with that is securing your future in terms of development behind the scenes, bringing players in, so it just springboards you into the next three or four years. That’s unlike what we did 13 years ago. Ulster didn’t capitalise on the commercialism of it and went backwards for a few years. They sat back on their laurels and said “we’ll do it again”. But we were getting on being an old team then and consequently got left behind.”
What do you like about the current squad?
“There’s a bit more togetherness about them than two or three years ago. They’ve grown mentally stronger. They were notorious for conceding in the four-minute window after scoring themselves, so they’d never put pressure on the opposition. They’ve improved that.”
How do you read the replacement of Brian McLaughlin as coach?
“Coaching is a nomadic thing anyway so that’s the nature of the beast. The way the whole thing has been handled has probably been a little bit ropey but it’s happened. You move on. For his sake I hope he goes out on a super high. He’s been the glue that stuck it all together and put it in the right direction. I think the guy who is going to have the most pressure is the incoming coach (Mark Anscombe). It’s all about timing. No-one has a crystal ball, no-one knows what the future holds. I’m sure, at times, David Humphreys has thought “goodness me” but he’s done a sterling job. He’s been able to get players in, strengthen the squad. It’s a process — it’s not an easy process — but he’s done well.”
How important is buying into the Ulster culture?
“It has to be the most important ingredient as a coach to get a foreign player into the culture. What it means to pull on the Ulster, Munster of Leinster shirt. It has to represent something. It’s been a key thing for Ulster and a lot of credit goes to Brian and the team for that. Four years ago, that identity had been lost. It was a ‘me, myself and I’ syndrome. Now, the Ruan Pienaars, Johann Mullers, John Afoas… they’ve all bought into it.”
What do Ulster need to do to shock Leinster?
“All track records go out the door when you’re playing a final. There are a lot of different circumstances floating around. Ulster have to look at it that way. They can’t dwell on the past. Otherwise they’ll be beat before they leave the dressing room. If you let Leinster play on their terms, you can’t beat them. Step up to them, knock them back, slow things down, get that front-foot ball off them and you give yourself a chance.”
* Former Heineken Cup winner with Ulster, Andy Ward, was in Dublin to officially launch Heineken Star Saturday, taking place today. Heineken invites rugby and soccer fans to enjoy the UEFA Champions League final and the Heineken Cup final in the pub — the best stadium on earth. For participating venues across Ireland check out www.heineken.ie/starsaturday
Words: Darragh Ó Conchúir
Follow Leinster's exertions against Ulster on our live Heineken Cup blog from London at 4pm tomorrow. It will be epic.
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