By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — It was a memorable day when one rugby nation got behind one province. Almost 30,000 Ulster people made the journey south to Lansdowne Road to witness one of the most remarkable Irish sporting stories of modern times. A short months ago, Ulster were no-hopers who couldn’t even make waves in the domestic game. Today they are European champions, having beaten the French side Colomiers, 21-6.
The past achievements of Ulster sporting heroes such as Barry McGuigan, Dennis Taylor and Mary Peters were echoed as David Humphreys and his team emerged as comprehensive winners over French side Colomiers in what was a gloriously one-sided final on Saturday.
Following their earlier victories over top French clubs Toulouse and Stade Francais, there was a worry that Ulster might freeze on the big day. Not a bit of it. Once again, they were confident, organized, efficient and aggressive. The cliche was true after all — their name was on the trophy.
The contest itself might not have been brimming with spectacular rugby, but it turned out to be a tactical triumph for Humphreys and company. Content to pin Colomiers back with a barrage of kicks, Ulster chased and pressured their opponents mercilessly.
In the face of Ulster’s onslaught and the raucous promptings of the vast majority of a capacity crowd of 49,000, Colomiers made mistakes and the champions had just the man to exact punishment: fullback Simon Mason.
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Mason had proved himself to be a goalkicker par excellence earlier in the tournament. On Saturday, he produced the goods again with six penalties from six attempts.
Humphreys, who has almost certainly played his way into the Ireland team to meet France in the first game of the Five Nations at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, added a drop goal for good measure, and with fully half an hour of the final left, there was only going to be one result.
Dublin’s famous old stadium hadn’t seen an occasion like it since Ireland last won the Triple Crown, back in 1985. There were some critics who wanted to defuse Ulster’s achievement given that the top English clubs had boycotted this season’s European Cup. However, the Irish province came through with a grand total of four triumphs over French opposition on their way to an historic triumph. And if you beat the best France can offer, then you’re worthy European champions.
Even though Humphreys and Mason stood out, it was a wonderful collective performance. The unsung Ulster forwards completely subdued Colomiers and international center Jonathan Bell made a series of crunching tackles in midfield. Only once just before halftime did Colomiers look remotely dangerous.
"There was no way we were going to lose this," captain Humphreys said. "We knew we were going out with a game plan and we knew that a lot relied on whether I kicked the ball well. We got ourselves into position and Simon Mason did the rest."
Although rugby in Ulster is almost entirely a Protestant pursuit, there was genuine countrywide empathy with the province’s achievement. While there won’t be a sudden rush of Gaelic footballers into the northern clubs, people usually want to be associated with success and now Ulster have set the standard.
They have shown that limited resources and some limited players don’t have to mean limited results. The question is now can Ireland take some of the current feelgood into the Five Nations championship. With France at home on Saturday, there is an outside chance of an upset and then coach Warren Gatland and his players shouldn’t fear the journeys away to Wales and Scotland.
Ulster’s triumph won’t translate necessarily into Irish success, but rugby here is no a high. And the country’s first ever European champions have shown that confidence and self-belief can take a team a long way.
Meanwhile, Garryowen moved to the top of Div. 1 of the All Ireland League following their 23-20 victory over champions Shannon at Thomond Park who now have lost two games in a row. Young Munster and Terenure drew 11-11 at Lakelands.