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Ulster is wont to be the exception in all manner of Irish affairs, not always to happy effect. But while an air of disappointment hangs over the rest of Irish rugby following the disappointments of 2005 – an anti-climactic Six Nations campaign, captain Brian O’Driscoll’s serious injury during the Lions tour and a moderate autumn season – the atmosphere in Ulster is one of hope and renewal.
That hope will be tested on Saturdayat Watford as Ulster visit Saracens in the fourth round of the Heineken European Cup’s six-round pool stage. If they can add another victory to their 19-10 defeat of Sarries at Ravenhill Park last week, they will take charge of the group. Biarritz, who lost at Saracens, still have to come to Ravenhill while the final match takes Ulster to Italy to play already eliminated Benetton Treviso.
Captain Simon Best recognises the size of the challenge: “Saracens are an extremely strong team who took a lot of beating at Ravenhill, so we know it will be anything but easy.”
And Saracens are not the only adversary they have to conquer – their own Heineken away record is the other. At Ravenhill, one of those compact, old-style stadiums built to generate atmosphere rather than income, they have won 14 consecutive ties, with Stade Français, Leicester and Wasps among the vanquished. Yet in the same time they have won only twice away.
Best has reason to believe the problem can be overcome. “We’ve won four out of five away in the Celtic League this season and have started to believe in ourselves away,” he says.
Others may have withheld that belief on the strength of wins at the less than terrifying trinity of Cardiff, Newport-Gwent Dragons and Border Reivers, but their most recent Celtic victory, by 20-17 at league leaders Munster, was of the sit-up-and-take-notice variety.
While the team can draw on an impressive history, it was the 1999 Heineken Cup victory, the sole Celtic triumph in the competition, that has had the biggest impact. “Since then there’s been a huge expansion – huge numbers of children taking up the game, more people watching and playing,” says the captain.
And those youngsters have a fresh generation of heroes to emulate. After a period in which outside-half David Humphreys was the one consistent Ulster presence in Ireland squads, a group of younger players has made the breakthrough. “We’ve had six players win their first caps in the last few months,” says Best.
Even the names have a cyclical element. Ulster’s most famous Trimble and Best – politician David and footballer George – have been replaced in the public eye by rugby playing namesakes. Centre Andrew Trimble looks Ireland’s best midfield discovery since O’Driscoll while a trio of Bests appeared in the autumn internationals. Simon played alongside brother Rory in the front row while Neil (no relation) played on the flank.
If last year was a struggle for the young players, this year has looked much more promising. “We’ve got a group of young players who have grown up together and are getting better and better,” says Simon Best.