INPHO/Presseye/Andrew Fosker Darren Cave dishes the ball to Luke Marshall despite pressure from Toby Flood.
# Heineken Cup
'This is an Ulster team undeterred by the past, confident of winning trophies'
Former Ulster fullback Adam D’Arcy gives us his take on the rise of the Belfast Boys.

THE CROWD AND and the history books were against them. In all of the past five encounters between the two sides, the home team had come out on top, and many were expecting the same, albeit tight, affair to unfold at Welford Road, where Leicester Tigers hadn’t lost in 25 Heineken Cup matches.

However this is an Ulster team undeterred by the past, confident of winning trophies, and determined to write their own history. It’s something that captain Johann Muller and coach Mark Anscombe repeatedly mention to the media, and I think now, after a memorable 22-19 victory over Leicester, even the sternest doubters, are starting to believe the Belfast boys.

Within the last four European seasons, Ulster have qualified for the knock-out stages on all four occasions. They have beaten Munster at Thomond Park, won twice away in France, and now, perhaps most significantly, booked a home quarter final at a revamped Ravenhill.

A remarkable line of achievements, even more astounding when noting that before 2011, Ulster had not made the last eight of the Heineken Cup in 12 years, never won away in France, and only one other team [Leicester] had visited, and left, Limerick successfully in the European Cup.

It was billed as the match of the round, and certainly lived up to the reputation. A bruising, physical battle, played with a quarter final intensity. The invaluable carrot of a home quarter final for the victor shaped the opening stages of the game, neither side risking playing in their own half, opting for contestable kicks and using their defence as an attacking weapon.

Locked at nine apiece at halftime, it was not until the 50th minute that the first try was scored, Niall Morris latching onto a deft Toby Flood kick to score in the corner. Along with Flood’s penalty, it was Leicester leading 19-9 heading in to the last half and hour. In a game so void of clear chances, 10 points was a massive margin, and Ulster’s famous parochial travelling supporters, looked to be clocking up the miles once more, booking flights to France to face either Toulon or Clermont in a quarter final.

But it was the metronomic Ruan Pienaar, the player who has been at the epicentre of all those recent record breaking European performances, that brought Ulster back level, first with a penalty, then a solo charge down try and conversion within 10 crucial minutes.

He then topped off a second consecutive man of the match performance with a successful penalty taken from within his own half, to send his team back to Belfast with a perfect six-from-six pool stage record, and mount pressure on the Ravenhill builders to have the new stadium completed for the arrival of Saracens in the opening weekend of April.

imageUlster will have the chance to avenge last season’s loss to Chris Ashton and Saracens. INPHO/Billy Stickland

In many ways this victory highlighted the key areas where Ulster have made massive strides in over the last four seasons, and the beginning of an exciting new era at Ravenhill.

The invaluable, astute foreign signings of Payne, Muller, Afoa and Pienaar, along with the outstanding performances of Chris Henry and Rory Best — the latter showing no signs of rustiness after two months out with a broken arm — have Ulster firing on all cylinders. Add to this the young talent of Jackson, Marshall, and Gilroy, showing experience well beyond their years, and you have a side that no opposition wants to meet in a quarter final, let alone at a jam-packed Ravenhill on a Friday night.

That is the challenge that faces Saracens, and a repeat of the same fixture of last year looms, however this time on Ulster’s turf. No team in the history of the Heineken Cup has gone through to win the competition with a 100% record, so to do so Ulster will have to rewrite the record books, something they have shown that they are well capable of doing.

@adamdarcy played 54 times for Ulster from 2010 to 2013. He is currently with English Championship side Bristol.

‘We’ve got to keep our feet firmly on the ground, we haven’t won anything yet’ – Mark Anscombe

Ravenhill here they come as Pienaar inspires Ulster to Tigers triumph