THEY WERE THE trailblazers. The first Irish team to both reach the Heineken Cup final and win it.
Munster would come close a year later, but it was a full seven before the trophy would return to these shores and decade before Leinster would get their hands on it.
Yes, since 1999, it has come back to Ireland four times and all the while Ulster were floundering. The third province.
Tomorrow, they can reassert their parity by matching Leinster and Munster’s double-starred crest. But there will never be a day like January 30 1999.
Here we present the memories of four of Ulster Rugby’s finest. Two were on the pitch 13 years ago, the other pair will take the field tomorrow.
Prelude to a dream (January 26-29, 1999)
Andy Ward (Open side flanker, retired): The main thing was just keeping everyone’s feet on the ground. It’s such a big gig for everybody – the pinnacle of a lot of guys’ careers. A lot of guys weren’t fortunate enough to play international rugby so this is the biggest window they’ll ever get to play in. It’s really just about keeping their feet on the ground and not getting ahead of themselves and just focusing on what we need to do as a team, not as individuals.
Jonny Bell (Inside centre, current Ulster defence coach): We were very, very unfancied and we had been having a pretty poor season. We had just been beaten in Munster, but then things just changed when we went to training during the day.
Ward: On paper, as a team, we probably should never have been there, because we were playing against Stade Francais and Toulouse and so forth, their playing budgets in those days was much more considerable than we had.
Paddy Wallace (Inside centre): I was in first year in college, just out of school. I had trained with he squad that summer in the pre-season. So I sort of knew a lot of the guys from that. It was a big day, a big occasion. I had gone up for the semi-final and the quarters aswell, so I had followed them.
Bell: We went down to Dublin pre-match and obviously it was a fantastic place. It was a real sense of being there, the reality of being in the final. As an international every time you went down, you arrived at the Berkeley Court and thought ‘right, this is it’. It was the same in ’99 when we went down to the hotel. You were on Lansdowne Road, you were ready for the game.
Ward: We missed the hype we came down four days beforehand and parked up at the Berkeley Court for three or four days and trained up the road. We missed a lot of the hype coming down and so forth.
Wallace: I was down in Dublin studying in UCD, so we had plenty of friends down the night before (Wallace takes a long breath, the cup of tea he holds at Newforge must be a stark contrast to his younger self on European Cup final weekend).
I was sharing an apartment there just off Pearce Street and a lot of friends were down pinting away, getting ready for the day and obviously it was a big occasion the next day.
‘Getting buzzed up’
Before sunrise, the traffic had already began to convoy south. Willie Henry is just one of many fathers with a teenage son. Tickets are safely tucked away in his jacket pocket, the transport has been arranged, so it’s away down south.
Chris Henry (Open side flanker): I was 14, I went down on a mini-bus that took myself and a few friends from school and the rugby club and our dads. We all went down and it was a brilliant day.
Ward: The first real bit of buzz that we got was actually outside the Berkeley Court. The windows were open on the first floor and by half eight, nine o’clock in the morning there’s thousands of people outside getting buzzed up, getting going. So that was the start of it…
Bell: (Laughing) I remember Colin Wilkinson,who was the backs coach, he had been out kicking with Simon Mason that morning and he came back in to the hotel and he was sort of shell-shocked and (in a hushed tone) he said:
‘I’ve just been kicking with ‘Mace’, and he’s just kicked 36 out of 36.’ And we were just like: ‘Fuck me, that’s phenomenal.’
‘Mace’, by standards back then and current standards, he was a phenomenal kicker. I suppose that’s something we almost took for granted, but he was magnificent. I think Wilky was just kind of like: (astounded face, eyes widened to a limit) couldn’t believe it, you know?
Henry: All I remember is the cars on the way down; honking and flags out – the roads were full – everyone was in brilliant spirits and it was an exciting day all round.
Ward: Driving to the match took about 20 minutes – which was crazy considering it was just round the corner – the bus got stopped several times on the road. It was just a sea of red and white. That was a good thing in a way, because for the guys with international experience it was the same route that they would have took. But for other guys, I mean we had guys in tears on the bus seeing that. It was just about keeping everybody calmed down and not try and get too worked up before the game kicked off. It was just a massive day.
‘Like a large Ravenhill’
Wallace: I was in the south terrace I think. They came out from the tunnel in the west stand and I was off to the right.
Henry: I was right at the top of one of the tiers. They were really bad seats, I was on about halfway, but right up the very back.
Bell: At the ground: the crowd, the sense of occasion…
Both Ward and (‘Dinger”) Bell agree that the wave of emotion carried the team through the game. This was not a game which was won and lost in the tight exchanges during 80 minutes.
Ward: Two big highlights stick in my mind. Firstly, the warm up…
Bell: It was possibly Stuarty Duncan or somebody who decided to do it.
We would have always done a bit of a lap after the warm-up. Just around the pitch to kind of get the crowd going into a frenzy a little bit and to show our collectivity. We ran down and they were stretching in one of the corners…
Ward: We decided to do a lap around the pitch and Colomiers were taking up one end of the pitch at the time and instead of going around them, we decided to run right through their warm-up. That kicked off the crowd and that was a good buzz.
Bell: I don’t think it was an attempt to disrupt them – but we had to get through them and it just looked as if… the crowd whipped themselves into a frenzy because they felt that we had tried to intimidate the Colomiers team.
Ward: You could just see, mentally, it left a scar with the Colomiers boys. That set the scene.
Bell: Certainly, the Colomiers team were looking round like ‘what’s going on here?’ They couldn’t really understand, but for me the one thing that sticks in my mind was really when we faced the east stand and just raised our arms above our head.
YouTube screen grab.
Wallace: I remember they went over to the east stand and gave the old (arms up). I mean it was just like a home game. It was like a large Ravenhill, 45 – 50,000 Ulster men who just never thought they were going to lose.
Bell: I don’t know who prompted it, it wasn’t scripted or anything, but it was spine-tingling because the crowd just thrived off it and you could feel the energy around the stadium.
Ward: You could see their body language was like ‘ah Jesus’ and there was just a wave of punters around. I think Colomiers that year had about three and a half – four thousand supporters over. The stadium held 55,000 or there abouts (49,000 was the official attendance) in Lansdowne Road.
Colomiers were a scratch in terms of the volume, so coming out on the pitch and seeing the crowd was just incredible.
Ulster 21 – 6 Colomiers
YouTube credit: TheUAFC
Henry: To be honest, I remember so little of the game.
Bell: The game itself was a pretty dour event..
Ward: It was a typical final, it wasn’t necessarily a classic end-to-end and running in tries, but that’s what finals are all about. There’s a lot of pressure on at the time. Ah, but it was just a massive day.
Bell: I think we were never going to lose. There was so much at stake and we had worked so hard to get there and I think the Colomier team, they had really resigned themselves to the fact that they couldn’t compete with 15 players on the pitch plus 50,000 screaming fans who were baying for their blood.
With so little specific memories, we asked Ward about Fabien Galthié. As a seven, it was part of his duty to disrupt France’s first choice scrum-half. Was there a single moment in the game when Galthié came close to taking control?
Ward: No, not really. We just flushed him out. I tried to catch him a few times just off the tale of the line-out. It was just good craic, getting in amongst it and sorting them out. It was one of those days that you play in a game and you just know it’s going to happen. It was a really good feeling.
Fabien Galthié with Andy Ward in close attendance. Chris Bacon/PA Archive/Press Association Images
Wallace: I was the opposite end of the drop-goal.
Henry: Aye, the drop-goal was off to my left.
Bell: I suppose that drop-goal was key. I think we put ourselves in positions to win penalties and ‘Mace’ went on to kick everything that day aswell, as he had done throughout the tournament.
We obviously didn’t score any tries and we were under a little bit of pressure on our own line at one stage in the second half which we managed to repel. I think as the game went on we just saw their enthusiasm starting to wane. They couldn’t find a way to win the game, basically. And with 10 minutes to go we thought ‘we’ve got this in the bag, we’ve just got to keep our focus and finish the job.’
Ward: My second big highlight was post match: It was the pitch invasion, the team was hoisted onto shoulders and it was a good day out.
Henry: I wasn’t one of the people that ran on the pitch unfortunately, that was pretty impressive… actually; the first kid to run on the pitch was (Connacht back-row) TJ Anderson. He always brags about, ‘I was the first kid to run on the pitch.’
I had a picture, actually, up on my wall of all the crowd running on – just from a wee crappy camera, but I still have it at home. I was having laugh at it when I was looking at it the other week.
The view from the back row through that ‘crappy’ camera. / © Chris Henry.
Presumably, wild celebration?
Bell: Do you know something, it’s kind of funny because after the game: The emotional energy that you expend throughout the whole build-up…
Henry: The main thing for me was just the atmosphere, the drive home and the drive there, because the roads were full.
Wallace: I just had a few pints and then probably called it quits early, because I had a big game the next day against Terenure for UCD under 20s. I think I was playing out-half, a bit ropey anyway.
I think we won, but I was just playing on fumes. It was a great weekend and credit to the guys.
Bell: The whole journey we had been in was just so demanding emotionally and physically. Once it was all over it was just kind of this big ‘I don’t believe we’ve done this’.
The night after the game – now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some guys went on and partied hard and partied long – but I know a lot of players were just having after match dinner and a bit of function with family and friends and dignitaries and things it was actually more subdued.
It was the journey up the next day on the bus, Harry Williams just closed the curtains on the bus and started handing round the bottle of whiskey. Then we had a parade around Belfast on top of the bus.
Obviously we had lost sight of how big it was. Some people said, ‘right we’re going to do an open-top bus trip’ and we’re like ‘Really? There’s going to be empty streets in Belfast’. Then we just couldn’t believe how many people had gathered, it was just fantastic. The aftermath was just one of relief (Bell takes a deep breath) that we had done it.
Post script: ’99 is gone and past’
13 years on and Ulster are back in the final. The heroes of the day will all have to watch from a safe distance in Twickenham. Their places are taken by the boys who had watched on from the stands, on screens or carried on with life obliviously in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
In the Aviva last month, before meeting Edinburgh in the semi-final, Henry was one of a number to take a dig at Bell saying, “Dinger obviously likes to talk about it a lot, about that ‘spirit of ’99′,”
Bell: That is just (Bell stops himself from cursing) that is just Chris Henry. On the way down the boys were all saying ‘I have to mention the spirit of ’99′ and I was going ‘ ahh no.’ and in every interview they kept going on about it.
Can I just make it clear: that is not the case. ’99 in gone and past. We want this year to be a big year for Ulster Rugby.
Henry: It was such a long time ago, I don’t think I would say I think of the ’99 team for inspiration. In my career I always wanted to win something, it’s such a long time ago and things are so different now.
When you do speak to ‘Dinger’ and Wardy and these guys you realise it was a special time for them. And I certainly feel, at the moment, that this is a special time for us players now too.
Wallace: As ‘Dinger’ says, he’s sick talking about it, but everyone will talk about it until we win another one.