By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Ulster go into the biggest ever provincial or club game in the history of Irish rugby when they take on French side Colomiers in the European Cup final at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
No-hopers who could hardly win a game earlier in the season, Ulster have developed into an irresistible force. They have now gone eight matches without defeat, beating former European Cup holders Toulouse at the quarterfinal stage and then memorably seeing off reigning French champions Stade Francais in the semifinal.
Ironically, only two of the team, Andy Ward and Jonathan Bell, are sure to start for Ireland in the Five Nations championship, which gets under way Feb. 6, and another two players haven’t even been able to get into the Ballymena side.
While their two previous shock victories were at Ravenhill in Belfast, the move south to Lansdowne Road shouldn’t knock a confident Ulster out of their stride. The game is a 49,000 sellout, and with Colomiers’ supporters set to number just 3,000, a highly partisan atmosphere should be worth about 10 points.
David Humphreys, who is now back challenging Eric Elwood for the Ireland out-half spot, had been in outstanding form, while full-back Simon Mason has proven himself to be the top goalkicker in Europe.
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No Irish province has ever won the European Cup, which has been dominated by French clubs, but the force certainly seems to be with Ulster now. Colomiers are not one of the strongest French teams, despite the considerable influence of international fullback Jean-Luc Sadourny, so Ulster look to be on the verge of an historic success.
Meanwhile, the bizarre run of results in the All Ireland League continues following Terenure’s shock 27-8 win over champions Shannon at Clanwilliam. Lansdowne move back to the top of Div. One thanks to a 41-22 success against Blackrock.
St. Mary’s, easy 46-17 winners over Clontarf, are second, with Garryowen in third despite losing by 16-10 to surprise contenders Buccaneers.