Their qualification for a Heineken Cup quarter-final clash against Northampton Saints may be the high point of Ulster’s season so far, but their operations director David Humphreys is hopeful that even better days lay ahead.
“Right now we’re enjoying our final pool victory and the fact that for the first time in 12 years we’re going to be playing knockout rugby in Europe,” said David Humphreys, who travelled back with the squad and management on Saturday evening following the 43-6 win over Aironi.
After the completion of the round 6 matches, it was confirmed that top seeds Northampton, who went undefeated through the pool stages, will host Ulster in a quarter-final to be played over the weekend of April 8-10.
Northampton, like Ulster, have won the Heineken Cup on one occasion, and indeed lifted the trophy in 2000 – the year after Humphreys captained his native province to European glory at Lansdowne Road.
Saints reached the quarter-final stage last season, losing 33-19 at Thomond Park, and are currently third in the Aviva Premiership.
“Northampton will certainly provide us with a big challenge in the quarter-finals. They’ve plenty of depth and they’re not the number one seeds for nothing,” added Humphreys.
“They were absolutely comprehensive in how they worked through the pool stages of the competition, coming up against quality teams in Castres, Cardiff and Edinburgh and maintaining a 100% record with six wins from six.”
But, with a home semi-final against French opposition the prize the offer, the former Ireland international knows exactly the type of performance that Ulster are capable of delivering come April.
“Just because we’ve reached the knockout stages of the competition for the first time in a very long time doesn’t mean that we’re happy to settle for that.
“We’ll go into the game as the underdogs, but that suits us just fine. There’s a self belief within our squad at the moment, we’ve recorded wins on the road in all competitions this season where perhaps people wouldn’t have expected us to and we’ll relish the opportunity ahead of us.”
Of course, while Ulster have met Northampton only once previously in the Heineken Cup competition, back in the 2002/03 season, there are plenty of connections between the two sides.
Former Ulster back rower Roger Wilson, who is in his third season at Northampton, was coached at RBAI by none other than current Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin.
Northampton also employ former Ulster hooker Paul Shields as their team manager. He retired as a Saints player in September 2009.
In addition, Jonny Bell, one of Ulster’s assistant coaches, began his professional career with Saints, playing alongside their current assistant coach Paul Grayson before returning to play for Ulster ahead of the 1998/99 season.
Humphreys explained that following a week off, the players and coaching staff will return to HQ with their attentions firmly back on Magners League action.
“There’s a lot of rugby to be played between now and the quarter-finals in April. The players will have a week off now and when we regroup we’ll turn our attentions back to the Magners League.
“Traditionally, we’ve struggled during the Six Nations period and haven’t responded well without our international players.
“We have two very tough away matches against the Ospreys and Scarlets on the horizon and if we’re to achieve our aim of a top-four finish in the league, that’s where our attention is going to be focused.”