Ulster Rugby vs Saracens

HAVEN’T WE MET BEFORE? For professional sportsmen, and for the fans of any sport, pitting yourself against the very best raises the adrenaline levels and gets the emotions churning with excited expectation.

And the Kingspan Stadium crowd knows that the arrival of England’s all-conquering Saracens will be one of the most anticipated visits of the season. Add to that the lustre of European competition in the shape of the Champions Cup and a floodlit bowl in late November and the scene is set for one of the most colourful, vocal and partisan of occasions the ground will witness this year. Ulster belatedly makes its bow in this season’s competition, the tragedies of Paris a week ago understandably leading to the late postponement of what should have been the campaign opener at Oyannax the following day. Those supporters who made the trip to the lower reaches of the Alps represented the Province with distinction, taking the small town and its club to its heart, as they did the fans. So, sport having been put in proper if catastrophic perspective, the European journey starts here. And Saracens really does represent the very best the northern hemisphere offers at club level. Reigning champions in the Premiership in England, currently sitting atop the table with an unblemished record, and with a proud winning record in elite European competition, Ulster could hardly have been drawn against more distinguished opposition. David Humphreys and Mark McCall, of course, had memorably lifted the European Cup together at Lansdowne Road in 1999 when Colomiers was defeated, and the good friends have twice been on opposite sides as the respective Directors of Rugby for Ulster and Saracens. Many have followed their careers with interest, and as Humphreys continues the task of rebuilding the Gloucester club, McCall has embellished his credentials with two Aviva Premiership titles, a European Cup final, all achieved with a soft-spoken modesty but steely determination which typified his days as a thoughtful and inventive centre for Ulster and Ireland. Injury during that 1998/9 season meant that Ulster’s captain reluctantly had to retire as the journey for Harry Williams’ team was dotted with great nights and afternoons in Belfast, when Toulouse – another great club which has been drawn in this Champions Cup Pool One – and Stade Francais were despatched. McCall was integral to that success though, because when he had to admit a chronic neck injury had cruelly foreshortened his playing career, he threw himself with passion and guile into his role as an assistant coach to Williams as the route to Lansdowne Road in January, 1999, was joyously plotted.

He would eventually take on the role of Head Coach and brought the Celtic League title back to Belfast in 2006, but after building a truly professional set-up, providing unprecedented numbers to the national team, and imbuing the squad with his own tireless work ethic and thirst to improve. Mark left in 2007, disappointingly early for those who knew he was destined, given his understanding and forensic rugby brain, to go to the top in his profession. And so it has proved, and with spells in France refining his talents he was head-hunted by the most ambitious and demanding club in England. The names Paddy Johns and Ryan Constable are writ large in Ulster’s history but both achieved legendary status at ‘Sarries’, and now McCall is – right from the front – sustaining a link with the Province that is, each year, being decorated even more. In April 2013 Ulster and Saracens strolled through the European Pool stages and Ulster travelled once more to Twickenham, for a quarter-final clash which Saracens won convincingly, but the gap between the top PRO12 outfits and the elite English clubs was palpably closing. So wind the clock forward a year. Again the sides were in supreme European Cup form and drawn yet again to meet at the quarter-final stage of the Heineken Cup, and Ulster was considered a very real threat to the ‘big guns’ of France and England. Humphreys and his staff had recruited widely and wisely, younger players had developed an appetite and talent for the biggest of games. The spanking new Kingspan Stadium, filled to capacity, had an electricity running through it for hours before kick-off: this was a game Ulster could – fans thought would – win, and set down a ‘marker’ for a year which, in early autumn, was full of promise. Ulster paraded its array of star names – Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Ruan Pienaar, the fast-maturing Paddy Jackson, John Afoa, Rory Best, Chris Henry, Nick Williams - in a side which was one of the most mentally strong and gifted of its generation. Saracens had the flamboyant Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers, Brad Barritt, David Strettle, Mouritz Botha and a phalanx of international ‘gallacticos’, and a wonderful contest was anticipated. It was one of those days when spectators felt they would indeed be able to say ‘I was there’. And, in a way, the pre-match hype delivered, but in a hugely deflating way for home fans. After four minutes Jared Payne was adjudged to have taken out Andy Goode in the air: referee Jerome Garces studied the contact on the big screens for what seemed an eternity. No malice, no intent, but technically the



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