Rugby Union: Ulster Dream the Impossible ; European Cup: Heroes of Last Year's Journey into History Now Carry an Entire Nation's Expectations

Article excerpt

THE ALARM rang at 6.45am, as usual. Harry Williams turned on the radio and listened to the thought for the day. "Some churchy thing" as he remembers it. Harry does not always listen so attentively, but today the voice was telling him about the power of community spirit, not a traditional theme in Belfast but one which Williams cares for and understands. He cannot recall the exact words, but the meaning of what followed was clear. The Ulster rugby team, the voice said, was a shining symbol of the forces for good in the province. Williams shuddered. He was not coaching a mere rugby team any more, with the defence of the European Cup beginning in Bourgoin on Saturday, he was guiding a whole community.

In Ulster, sporting achievement is too readily sucked into the threshing machine of politics, too often spat out as a sentimental celebration of unity. But Ulster's victory in the European Cup at Lansdowne Road in Dublin late last January strayed way beyond the borders of propaganda. So spontaneous was the spirit, so vibrant the triumph that the whole nation, north and south, Catholic and Protestant, truly rejoiced in the crazy Irishness of the whole damned journey. From Ebbw Vale through the Borders to Toulouse and back home to the cosy delights of Ravenhill, the Ulster story careered on, gathering followers of every persuasion until even the godfathers of the Gaelic Athletic Association, stern-eyed keepers of the traditional Catholic sports, deserted their western strongholds to see what all the fuss was about down in the east.

By the time Ulster reached Dublin for the final, the regular home gate of 2,000 had swelled to an army of 50,000, all barriers had been stormed and the red and white Gaelic flags were being raised alongside the flags of Ulster in common salute to sporting impossibility. The poor Frenchmen of Colomiers took one look at the forces arrayed before them and hauled up their own white flag. "I don't think they'd seen anything like it in their lives," Williams laughs. They were not the only ones. "The feelings and memories from that campaign will last a lifetime," David Humphreys, Ulster's inspirational captain, said. "I've never experienced anything like it before and probably won't ever again."

A respray for the toilet blocks and a gleaming new trophy cabinet are the only visible signs of change at Ravenhill, the home of the Irish Rugby Football Union (Ulster branch) where the miracle took shape. On a crisp morning, the talk is all of forgetting past glories, of wiping the slate clean and consigning the summer-long round of receptions and awards to the scrapbooks.

At the end of the training session, the players gather round Williams in the huddle which became the symbol of their progress last season. The huddle is easy. Recreating the sense of family which fostered it, with a repeat to perform, several new faces to absorb into the squad and mighty expectations to fulfil, that's the hard part. No player who began the season attending a memorial service for the victims of the Omagh bombing and ended it as the honoured guests of the Omagh and Strabane District Council could pretend to be untouched by their deeds.

"To get all those honours makes you very aware of your place within society," said Simon Mason, the Liverpool-born full-back whose penalties lifted Ulster to victory in the final. "When you're playing sport you can get carried away with the routine of playing and training and you can forget you are a part of people's emotions and feelings. It's quite an honour.

"I grew up in Liverpool where the footballers took all the recognition and the glory and to be a sports star in Ulster still shocks me a little. I have to pinch myself sometimes. But with that comes a responsibility. My great-uncle comes from Ulster but now lives in Dublin and he kept ringing me up and saying how brilliant our success was, so I knew what we were representing. …