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Ulster stuns Stade Francais

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Martin Breheny

DUBLIN — Just when it looked as if Ireland’s international rugby season had little to offer frustrated fans, Ulster came along and delivered one of the best tonics the game has enjoyed in many years.

Ulster’s 33-27 victory over Stade Francais Saturday in the European Cup semifinal at Ravenhill is being classified as probably the most significant day in Irish rugby since Munster beat the All-Blacks in 1978. And there could be more to come as Ulster now move on to Lansdowne Road on Jan. 30 for a European Cup final showdown with Colomiers (France).

It was truly a remarkable occasion at Ravenhill. An all-ticket sell-out crowd of 20,000 expected a fiery performance from Ulster, but a victory over the French aces looked way beyond the capabilities of David Humphreys’s side. But with the captain leading by impressive example, Ulster peeled back layer after layer of courage, resilience and determination and never allowed Stade Francais to develop momentum.

The Ulster pack were outstanding, working doggedly and defiantly to provide a decent service for their imaginative back division. Humphreys gave a most intelligent exhibition at out-half, consistently varying the game plan, much to the frustration of his opposite number, Diego Dominguez, who is regarded as one of the top No. 10s in European rugby.

Dominguez finished a poor second in his duel with Humphreys, who as well as using possession sensibly, also struck for two memorable scores. The first was a try of vintage quality and came three minutes into the second half when Humphreys ran half the length of the pitch to touch down ahead of his routed pursuers.

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Humphreys’s second score was less spectacular but equally important. It came nine minutes later when he miss-hit a drop goal attempt, and while the ball wobbled all over the place, it found the target to put Ulster 24-10 ahead.

Stade Francais rallied and cut the deficit to 30-27 with three minutes remaining. It looked as if Ulster’s gallant effort might just run out of steam, but full-back, Simon Mason intervened to land a crucial penalty goal that clinched victory.

If Humphreys was Ulster’s playmaker, Mason was very much the assassin, kicking 20 points (five penalties, a drop goal and a conversion). His accuracy from all angles and distance was truly amazing and ensured that the French were punished for every error.

Humphreys, whose performance may have edged him ahead of Eric Elwood in the race for the Irish out-half jersey in the Five Nations Championship, said afterward that he had never played in front of a more passionate crowd and that this had been a big help, particularly in the second half when the French came back at Ulster.

Now the show moves on to Lansdowne Road on Jan. 30 and already all the signs are that the ground’s capacity will be tested to the limit. Ulster have caught the imagination not only of their own supporters but of the Irish rugby population as a whole and it really would be a remarkable achievement if they could land the European Cup.

With the final coming just one week before Ireland play France in the opening Five Nations game at Lansdowne Road, Ulster’s performance could well set the agenda for the international season. On the basis of Ulster’s performances so far in the European Cup, there is every reason for genuine optimism on all fronts.

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