Sport Rugby

Saturday 25 November 2017

South African diamonds shine when going gets tough

Ulster are well equipped to challenge for Cup success, writes Kevin Mitchell

In the 12 years since Ulster made the most of slim resources to become champions of Europe, the sense of lost opportunity has hung like a shroud over Ravenhill.

When they returned from Dublin with the trophy and 40,000 supporters making a loud and lubricated case for their sainthood, all things looked possible -- at least from the outside.

Behind doors, reality kicked in. Ulster did not have the resources in those birth-pang days of professionalism to compete consistently with the giants of the sport, as results would prove. David Humphreys, who starred in that 1999 triumph at Lansdowne Road over Colomiers with a team of part-timers and novice professionals, has become the most persuasive travelling salesman in a fiercely competitive marketplace to attract world-class players to a city and a ground drenched in a tradition of struggle.

Humphreys, in his role as the club's operations director and drawing on legal skills developed alongside Mike Gibson, has travelled thousands of miles in the past couple of years to recruit players such as Ruan Pienaar, who will drive the team from No 9 against Northampton this afternoon, alongside his South African compatriots BJ Botha, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg.

Now, within two wins of a second grab at European glory, the club parked in the shadow of Ian Paisley's church is, like the newly retired doctor himself, inclined to smile more often. Ulster have a starry roster and plans for £15m worth of expansion, with new stands and new standards.

Back in the knockout stage for the first time since their Dublin triumph, Ulster are now worthy guests at the banquet.

What has changed since 1999? "Everything," says Humphreys. "That win happened within six months of a number of us returning from England [Humphreys had a spell with Clive Woodward's London Irish] and probably success in professional rugby then was much harder to gauge. We might have played 10 games a year, so there was still a huge emphasis on club rugby. Now, as the game has moved on there's a much bigger commercial importance attached to how the team does on the pitch."

We are sitting in the office of the club's chief executive, Shane Logan, a one-time club player and coach himself but, for Ulster, a businessman of searing purpose.

Humphreys is perfectly placed -- mirroring his pivotal position as a fly-half in 72 appearances for Ireland before giving way to Ronan O'Gara -- to orchestrate Ulster's progress.

"It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this quarter-final," he says. "As important as the Magners League is to us, probably the Ulster public, and the Irish public, judge the provinces on their success in the Heineken Cup.

"This is a huge stepping stone for us. We have invested money in persuading some of the best players in the world to come over here. The difference they have made has been evident almost every week. They've all been unbelievably influential in different ways.

"We had good players already, but what we lacked in tight games was the leadership and experience that makes a difference. There have been several games this year down to one score. Over the past years, we've lost those games, this year, we've won them all."

Andy Ward, the New Zealander who has made this club and city his home and won 28 caps as a flanker for Ireland, says, "Every time the game has been right on the wire, it is those guys we've gone to. You can see Muller in control up front and the young guys feed off that. The balance is looking a lot better now."

That balance includes the best of Ulster's wide-ranging academy system. Nevin Spence and Paddy McAllister signed new deals this season, as did the lock Dan Tuohy, a Gloucester product who made his debut for Ireland in New Zealand last year. Spence, particularly, has impressed with his pace in the centres.

It is this mix, with Pienaar at the centre of most of it, that has made Ulster a stealthy mover in Europe this season. Humphreys has the pleasure, also, of observing his younger brother, Ian, flourish at fly-half. He was sensational in open play against Scarlets in their last Magners match, and shares the kicking duties with Pienaar.

With the South Africans marauding at full steam, and men such as Spence, Pienaar and Humphreys operating at the top of their form, Ulster at last, perhaps, can disregard their surroundings as just another field. They did, after all, do just that 12 years ago in Dublin.

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