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the dark days are over for ulster

The northern province has emerged from the shadow of Leinster and Munster and is once again a force, writes Brendan Fanning

If you are in the business of throwing curve ball questions for table quizzes then you might want to consider this: name the Ulster venue for the preview of the 2012 All-Ireland senior final?

Eh, Ravenhill. Yes it's a bit of a stretch, and it might be best not to use it as a tie-breaker, but Friday night's set-to in east Belfast was what Irish rugby fans will hope was a precursor to an event on May 19 in west London: an All-Ireland final in the Heineken Cup.

The Ulster faithful will not be too shaken by the loss to Leinster on Friday night, but they know that if they get past Edinburgh then there is still a whole lot of ground to make up on the European champions -- if indeed Joe Schmidt's mob survive the trip to Bordeaux.

Ulster's injury news is mixed, but at least the returning Declan Fitzpatrick was solid for the hour's work he put in. It was unfortunate for his replacement, Adam Macklin, a man very much learning his trade, that his arrival on the field coincided with that of Heinke van der Merwe, who was typically disruptive.

This highlights again where Ulster are on their journey up the ladder. Strengthening the bench is top of the agenda for David Humphreys, along with revving up the academy. Is this a bench to bear the pressure to come over what they hope will be two more Heineken Cup games?

"That remains to be seen," says Jonny Bell, whose role as elite player development officer ties him into the hunt for the next generation. Certainly they looked thin on Friday night, and the absence of All Black John Afoa on Saturday will be massive. For all their hard work against Leinster, they just didn't have the bodies to sustain the chase.

"We feel that it was one that we left go really," Bell says. "There could have been positives to having a light run through ahead of the semi-final but you want a good, really competitive hard-edged game so that you're battle-hardened and ready to go in. So we got that, but that's where it stops. That's parked now. We've got next Saturday to think about and we've got to do our homework on Edinburgh who are coming over to Aviva -- and there's no one who can tell their squad that they're not in with a chance of making it to the final."

When Ulster last marched in force on Lansdowne Road it was 13 years ago and Bell was one of the main men they came to see. He was not yet 25, but an experienced Test player having made his debut in Australia in 1994. He exploded onto the scene as a player whose fitness scores set him aside, and then he proved he had the skills to match. By the time he was a part of Ulster's European charge he had already put in a very useful season with Northampton. Bell had become a team leader.

He wasn't exactly their main weapon of attack though. Coach Harry Williams had a game plan that largely involved either Simon Mason or David Humphreys kicking the ball in the air and then kicking it over the bar. Mason was a genuine phenomenon off the tee -- well he would have been if they used tees in those days.

Coincidentally it all started, successfully, against Edinburgh, in Ravenhill. By the time it finished Mason had kicked 30 penalties, 17 conversions (they loaded up with 14 tries over the home and away legs with Ebbw Vale), and dropped a goal. And for a fullback not known for his running game, he managed three tries as well. It was simple rugby, and the more they did it the more effective they became.

"If you achieve something as a group -- no matter how you do it, no one can take it away from you, particularly back then because rugby union, as a professional concept, was very much in its infancy," Bell says.

"And we were not a star-studded side. Obviously we had some Irish internationals and some players who would go on to become Irish internationals but we were very much a home-grown side of, dare I say it, nobodies. And through an element of fortune, massive team cohesion and increasing self-belief, this thing happened. Once we got to the quarter-finals, we felt unbeatable. At Ravenhill we knew we would be difficult to beat but nobody could have foreseen Ebbw Vale beating Toulouse -- a week after Toulouse had put 100 points on them?

"That gave us a home quarter-final and then from there on, the spirit grew and grew and by the time we reached the final, you could have put the All-Blacks out against us and I don't think we were going to lose because it was more than just a game. We look back on it very fondly but the young players slag us about it, saying we have to mention the spirit of '99 in interviews. I try and tell them that it wasn't just a Magners League win -- because no English teams played that year -- but they're having none of it. It was a very proud day for everyone involved and if you go through it together, it bonds you."

There was no follow-on. We have a clear memory of Lawrence Dallaglio being interviewed in Ravenhill after Wasps -- the English clubs were back the next season -- won their second round tie of the following campaign.

The suggestion was that he must have been delighted and a little surprised to have come away from the champions' fortress unscathed. Dallaglio was diplomatic. They had destroyed the home side and looked like they knew in advance exactly what would unfold.

Bell plugged away for another few seasons before injury forced him out, and then he came back to Ravenhill in 2009 as their man to search for and develop new stars.

"You always knew that in time we would eventually get ourselves back up to being competitive again because we went through, as you called it, fallow years. For whatever reasons, we just couldn't live up to the billing and we then watched Munster and Leinster grow and grow and grow and when you are on a small island, with only four professional teams, and two of them are consistently making European quarters, semis and finals, you know you are the poor relation.

"It was frustrating. But credit has to go to Ulster rugby, the IRFU and the investment they put in. David Humphreys has been instrumental in the signings he has made and the academy has produced young players and if you look at it in cycles now, we are on an upward trend."

Chris Henry is one of their academy graduates. It is inescapable that Ulster's resurgence has been inspired by the acquisition of proven match-winners from the southern hemisphere, but Henry's contribution has been top quality. He should have been included in Declan Kidney's Six Nations squad, which was selected on seniority rather than form, and since then has used the Pro 12 and Heineken Cup to reinforce the point.

He is positively ebullient. When he says that he's playing the best rugby of his life these days and loving every minute of it, you believe him. And when he talks about the atmosphere ahead of Saturday it is infectious.

Henry was part of a day trip with Malone under 15s back in '99 when Ulster beat Colomiers. Mostly he remembers the colour and the noise and the pitch invasion at the end. A couple of weeks ago he was back in Gibson Park for the Malone dinner, and was reliving it all over again.

"Everybody I spoke to has got a ticket," he says. "That's amazing. They came on a big bus from Malone down to Thomond [last weekend]. All the idiots with their tops off on tv, that was my mob! Ulster fans are just a crazy bunch of people and they've been brilliant for us."

We forget sometimes in this part of the world the slightly different connection between Ulster and its supporters compared to the other three provinces. There was a night in Biarritz a good while back when some of the travelling Ulster press corps explained to us the dilemma it posed vis a vis impartial reporting. "What you don't understand is that this is our team," was the line. Henry would understand that, living in the goldfish bowl of Belfast.

"When people ask me that -- look at the Belfast Giants and ourselves. They're a very successful team but there are very few home-grown Ulster players playing for them, so that's why for us we love it -- we feel as if it's the people's team. Success breeds success and we hope that this can be a platform now to really explode Ulster rugby in general because if you look at the work that's been done in every aspect from Shane Logan coming in and David Humphreys moving into that role -- to the people in the Branch to the physios to every aspect -- I feel we're definitely moving in the right direction. Slowly but surely -- it's not going to happen overnight but we want to be up there with Munster and Leinster. That's what we said three, four years ago. And I think this is showing we are moving in the right direction. "

So, what about the prospects of an All-Ireland final?

"Yeah it would be special but we're not letting ourselves think about that. The only thing on our minds now is Edinburgh. I know I've never enjoyed my rugby as much as I have right now and I know everyone's in the same boat. And we just want this to keep going."

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