Echoes of '80s as North star rises again
ULSTER have a long and proud history of producing quality players for Ireland and, until Brian O'Driscoll came along, the province could justifiably claim to have produced the country's three most renowned and respected players in Jack Kyle, Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride.
Of the current side, Stephen Ferris and Rory Best have emerged as two of the finest internationals to have come out of the province, while the 2011-12 vintage are living up to the Ulster traditions of uncompromising forward play and clinical attacking, and adding to Ravenhill's reputation as one of the most formidable venues in Europe.
The victory there over Leicester in January was one of Ulster's finest of any era and it was that night in Belfast when the province served notice of their ability to go the whole way in the competition.
They looked an unstoppable, relentless force when dismissing a highly regarded Tigers outfit (who are chasing another English Premiership title this season) 41-7, and while there were fine Ulster sides in the 1970s, '60s and before, that night the men in white brought back memories of their untouchable outfits of the 1980s when they were, by some distance, the best province in Ireland.
The last 30 years have seen Ulster's fortunes wax and wane and, with the European triumph in 1999 a notable exception, there have been plenty of disappointments since professionalism arrived in 1995.
However, with solid foundations laid under Brian McLaughlin, Ulster have moved up the Irish pecking order and have designs on becoming the dominant province once again.
Leinster and Munster will have something to say about that but there are definite positive signs that a 1980s revival is on the cards.
Mick Doyle's Leinster were the strongest provincial force in the early 1980s, earning their coach the Ireland job in the process. But from 1984 onwards, Ulster reigned supreme and the main architect behind their rise to prominence was the late Jimmy Davidson. The PE teacher brought a training and preparation regime to a side that was well ahead of its time, guiding them to three successive inter-provincial titles as well as engineering a famous 15-13 victory over the 1984 Grand Slam Wallabies.
The evidence of Ulster's quality in the 1980s is demonstrated by the fact they had the largest representation (six players) on Doyle's 1985 Triple Crown-winning Ireland side -- Ringland, Crossan, McCoy, Anderson, Matthews and Carr.
Best victory: Ulster 15 Australia 13, Nov 14, 1984
ULSTER 1980s XV -- P Rainey; T Ringland, J Hewitt, D Irwin, K Crossan; I Brown, R Brady; P Kennedy, S Smith, J McCoy; B McCall, W Anderson; P Matthews, N Carr, D Morrow.
Ulster's superiority extended into the 1990s and added to some remarkable statistics -- no losses to Leinster between 1983-84 and 1993-94; no losses to Munster between 1980-81 and 1994-95 and no losses to Connacht between 1983-84 and 1997-98.
When professionalism came in and players began moving to England, the situation levelled out somewhat, with Leinster and Munster using the All-Ireland League effectively to bolster their provincial performances.
Ulster's international representation dropped accordingly in a grim decade for Ireland, but they were still the first Irish side to claim glory in Europe under Harry Williams with a team containing only seven capped players.
While the final victory over Colomiers in Lansdowne Road was clinically executed and riotously celebrated, the semi-final triumph over Stade Francais will go down as one of the finest encounters witnessed in Europe's premier club competition.
Best victory: Ulster 33 Stade Francais 27, Ravenhill, January 9, 1999
ULSTER 1990s XV -- C Wilkinson; J Topping, M Field, M McCall, J Bell; D Humphreys, A Matchett; J Fitzpatrick, A Clarke, P Millar; G Longwell, J Davidson; T McWhirter, A Ward, P Johns.
Whatever way you examine it, the 2000s were a disappointing decade for Ulster rugby. While Munster and then Leinster forged ahead in their European endeavours, Ulster were rooted in the pool stages while going through a succession of coaches from Alan Solomons to Mark McCall, Steve Williams, Matt Williams and McLaughlin.
They did manage to pick up a (now defunct) Celtic Cup in 2004 and the Celtic League two years later but Heineken Cup failures overshadowed all despite some Ravenhill thumpings of European heavyweights such as Wasps ('01), Leicester ('04) and Toulouse ('06).
However, Ulster continued to produce some key players for Ireland with Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Rory Best all involved in the Grand Slam in 2009.
Best victory: Ulster 30 Toulouse 3, October 21, 2006
ULSTER 2000S XV -- B Cunningham; T Bowe, J Bell, P Wallace, A Trimble; D Humphreys, N Doak; J Fitzpatrick, R Best, S Best; G Longwell, M McCullough; S Ferris, K Dawson, R Wilson.