YOU would imagine that tomorrow will be a bittersweet occasion for Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin. Since he took over in 2009, McLaughlin has overseen a steady progression in the side's fortunes while simultaneously re-energising rugby in the province, and tomorrow's Heineken Cup semi-final in Lansdowne Road will provide tangible evidence of such.
There has been a ticket frenzy in the North since Ulster's epic quarter-final win over Munster, with estimates that as many as 40,000 supporters could travel down to Dublin, reawakening memories of the southern crusade to the final in 1999.
It will be a special occasion for anyone with a vested interest in the province's rugby fortunes, but particularly for a man who has spent his life immersed in the Ulster game.
In many ways, McLaughlin's story mirrors Declan Kidney's.
Like the Ireland coach, McLaughlin was a decent club player, part of a powerful 1980s Ards side where he played blindside flanker alongside Triple Crown heroes Philip Matthews and Nigel Carr.
McLaughlin used to joke that he "did all the work and they (Matthews and Carr) got all the glory", but, while he is remembered as a fine player, stiff competition in his position from the likes of Matthews, Don Whittle, Davy Morrow and Willie Duncan prevented McLaughlin moving up the representative ladder before he was forced to retire through injury in his late 20s.
Like Kidney, McLaughlin comes from a teaching background, and moved on to a successful schools coaching career, starting with Wallace High School, who he steered to their first Ulster Senior Schools final in 1989, when his star player was Neil Doak, now his assistant with Ulster.
McLaughlin moved to the Royal Belfast Academic Institution (RBAI) in the mid-90s, promptly leading them to their first schools title in 25 years in '95.
'Inst' went on to win further titles in '98, 2000, '03, '05 and '07, while reaching two other finals, and McLaughlin's abilities were recognised with positions at underage representative level.
And, just as Kidney was, he was brought into the Ireland national set-up as assistant under Eddie O'Sullivan.
A highly regarded technical coach, specialising in work at the breakdown, McLaughlin took a sabbatical from his position as head of physical fitness at RBAI and did so again when he was handed the Ulster job following Matt Williams' departure three years ago.
When his contract with Ulster was extended, McLaughlin took the decision to step down from his teaching post, an honourable move in keeping with the dignity he has displayed since it emerged that he was to be replaced next season, regardless of the progress the province has made during his tenure.
While the party line was that this was always part of the plan, McLaughlin was entitled to believe that his rolling contract would be extended further depending on results. And the results have been spectacular.
The pool win over Leicester was one of Ulster's finest at Ravenhill, and it was backed up by a remarkable performance in Thomond Park when McLaughlin's side, with no recourse to the bench, displayed a tactical nous and focus that spoke volumes for the coaching work and preparation done under his supervision.
Tomorrow is shaping up to be another demonstration of McLaughlin's worth but, even if Edinburgh continue their remarkable run of European upsets, the Ulster coach has proven his capacity to meet the branch's overall desire "to take the province forward".
Instead, it will be Mark Anscombe charged with that duty next season -- not the 'world class' coach that was desired but a New Zealander who arrives with a mixed record in his own country.
With a dire need for more indigenous coaches to come through at the top level, turning once again to the southern hemisphere at the expense of the proven, home-grown man in situ seems bizarre.
It is understood that there are no offers for McLaughlin to coach elsewhere as yet (although that situation may change if Ulster go on to claim the European title) and there is no guarantee that the Strangford Lough man would be willing to leave his home province.
He will do a fine job in the Ulster Academy, and perhaps Anscombe will be able to build on the work done by his predecessor, but McLaughlin has shown that he is worthy of a bigger stage.
All he can do is continue to strive to bring the senior side forward in the short time left to him, but his is a poignant chapter in a positive story.
And Ulster and Irish rugby could ultimately be left to rue the one that got away.