Ahead of this season’s first Champions Cup action, Ulster heroes of the past have contributed to a new book that marks the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Province’s greatest day in the competition.
‘The Last Amateurs’ will be released this weekend (Friday 12th October) and tells the story of the incredible 1998/99 European Cup season when a side still not yet fully professional shocked the rugby world by beating Colomiers 21-6 in the final.
Ahead of the book hitting the shelves, the below extract details Ulster’s historic victory in Lansdowne Road.
“Walking down those steps, walking into the foyer, you felt that sense of pride in where you’re from,” remembers Allen Clarke of the scene in the team’s Dublin hotel ahead of the 1999 European Cup final against Colomiers.
“There was definitely a tear in the eye. You could taste the atmosphere. Where we’re from, what Ulster, what Northern Ireland and what Ireland had been going through, you recognised there was an expectation for something special to happen.
“It didn’t feel like a weight on the shoulders, it was like an energy in the body. It made me feel as if I could have run all day. In my head, we were never going to lose that game.”
The last voice the players would hear before they left the changing room for the field that day belonged to reserve flanker Stuart Duncan.
“If we win today, for the rest of our lives we’ll be blood brothers,” he told them. “Nobody can do it for us. We are the 22 players who can go out there and create history. When we meet up in years to come, we’ll sit down and laugh and joke and remember this day as the one when we won the European Cup. Go out there and become a legend.”
Plenty of fans were still milling about outside the stadium or in the concourses when the warm-ups began, even if there were already more than enough to make Colomiers aware that they weren’t in friendly surroundings.
David Humphreys led his players around the touchline in what was to be one of their last acts before the biggest game in most of their lives. Like two cars in a game of chicken, it soon became clear that the teams were on a collision course.
As Ulster circled around, Colomiers were running through some last-minute set-piece practice. Something, or someone, had to give. As Ulster neared, Marc dal Maso stepped back as if he were preparing to throw into an imaginary lineout. A collision with Duncan knocked him sideways.
When the Frenchman turned to find the culprit, he homed in on the wholly innocent Stanley McDowell.
“Maybe I brushed him a bit on the way past,” says Duncan, his diplomatic delivery failing to mask the mischievous glint in his eye.
“It was the maddest warm-up,” says Andy Ward. “I just remember thinking that we had to get this crowd pumping, I just knew that. Forty-odd thousand of them going mad, that would be the business.
“It got everyone jazzed up. Whenever we just ran right through them, Dunky dropping the shoulder, the crowd went off. Then the line, the salute to the crowd, to do something like that as tight a bunch as we were, that just showed the crowd that we were all in it together. You could just see Colomiers thinking, ‘What the hell are we in for here?’
“It felt like we had won that game before a ball was kicked. We were in the changing rooms and people just couldn’t wait to get back out there and get it going. It was like an electric charge running through you or something.”
In the old Lansdowne Road, where the rattle and hum of the trains that ran underneath the West Stand of the stadium could be both heard and felt during a game, the Orient Express could have been steaming across the ’22’ and had its engines drowned out by the roar. Ulster, their 22 players and their tens of thousands of fans, were ready to go.
The final will always be seen as an unforgettable occasion marked by a forgettable game, the 21-6 score the product of six Simon Mason penalties and David Humphreys’ drop goal for the victors.
It felt as though the game could have continued all day and Mason still wouldn’t have missed, nor would Colomiers have been able to get any closer than arm’s length.
With one final blast of Clayton Thomas’ whistle, the most unlikely kings of Europe were crowned.
EUROPEAN CUP FINAL, 30/01/1999, Lansdowne Road
Ulster team: S Mason; S Coulter, J Cunningham (S McDowell, 40), J Bell, A Park; D Humphreys (capt), A Matchett; J Fitzpatrick, A Clarke, R Irwin (G Lesley, 73), M Blair, G Longwell, S McKinty, T McWhirter (D Topping, 75), A Ward.
Colomiers team: J-L Sadourny (capt), M Biboulet, S Roque, J Sieurac, B Lhandes (D Skrela, 20); L Labit (M Carre, 53), F Galthie; S Delpuech, M Dal Maso, S Graou, G Moro, J-M Lorenzi, B de Giusti, S Peysson (P Pueyo, 67), P Tabacco.
Ulster scorers: S Mason six pens, D Humphreys one drop goal
Colomiers scorers: L Labit pen, M Carre pen.
Referee: C Thomas (Wales)
Man of the Match: Jonny Bell
The Last Amateurs is released on Friday 12th October via Blackstaff Press and will be available in shops and online from all good booksellers.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) October 11, 2018