Win The Last Amateurs – the story of Ulster’s 1999 European Cup triumph

Of the 23 completed instalments of rugby’s Heineken European Cup, the unlikeliest triumph is surely that of Ulster in the last throes of the 20th century.

This Wednesday, 30 January, marks the 20th anniversary of that unforgettable day when it seemed the whole of Belfast and the nine counties converged on Dublin to see coach Harry Williams’s team complete a remarkable fairytale.

In truth, the final had a tinge of anticlimax to it, the comfortable 21-6 win coming at the expense of a Colomiers team having a mediocre domestic season and lacking the lustre of Ulster’s previous French opponents in that year’s competition.

Ulster scrum-half Andy Matchett v Colomiers, 1999

Match play: Andy Matchett moves the ball in the final. Ulster wore red because of a colour clash (Getty)

No matter. During a period in history when political tensions still gave rise to acts of terrorism – the Omagh bombing that murdered 29 people had occurred five months earlier – Ulster’s achievement in the old Lansdowne Road proved a wondrous and unifying force.

“Ulster (province) was coming out of a troubled time politically and we sat as an almost apolitical team,” says David Humphreys, the captain and fly-half of that celebrated side. “We got support from everyone. That game kick-started rugby in Ulster. It got people in who had never watched it before.”

Jonathan Bradley, rugby correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph, charts Ulster’s route to glory in 1999 in his book The Last Amateurs and he’s done an outstanding job.

Ulster's 1999 European Cup victory parade through Belfast

City tour: the victory parade through Belfast emphasised the team’s connection with the public (Getty)

He reminds us of the team’s proud history – Ulster won at least a share of every Inter-Pro title from 1985-94 – and of their rather chaotic transition to professionalism, when a handful of ‘full-time’ players would be kicking their heels waiting for the part-timers to join them for evening training.

In September 1997, Ulster were crushed 56-3 by Wasps but a year later there were no English clubs in the 16-team European Cup after they boycotted it in a protest about prize money.

The start of IRFU contracts, allied to a dictum from then national coach Warren Gatland that players needed to play in Ireland to warrant Test consideration, saw the likes of Humphreys, Mark McCall, Jonny Bell and Allen Clarke quit the English Premiership and return to Northern Ireland.

Full-back Simon Mason, a three-cap casualty of Ireland’s 1996 defeat to Samoa, was back too after feeling unloved at Richmond. His goal-kicking proved the major points harvester, the Liverpudlian kicking 47 points in the knockout stages alone.

Simon Mason celebrates Ulster's win over Stade Francais, 1999

Metronomic: Simon Mason after the semi-final win v Stade Français in which he kicked 20 points (Getty)

Time and again in Bradley’s book, we are reminded of how different top-flight rugby was two decades ago. Thirty-two of Ulster’s 51-man squad had full-time jobs outside of rugby, including scrum-half and medical salesman Andy Matchett, the captain for their opening friendly defeat away to a Spanish Barbarians side containing seven French internationals.

The book intersperses fascinating profiles of the Ulster players with the team’s turbulent progress in that 1998-99 campaign. They were humbled 35-11 at home by Leinster and, later, a 31-9 rout by Munster proved a watershed in terms of training schedules.

Kicking off the European Cup on 18 September 1998, Ulster conceded two tries in the first four minutes at home to Edinburgh. “There goes another European season,” said flanker Stephen McKinty to his team-mates behind their posts.

Yet the season was to provide drama upon drama, extraordinary moments that went Ulster’s way and kept them in contention for a title that all expected to go the way of the French.

Ulster managed a 38-38 draw on that opening day, and in the return fixture they sneaked a 23-21 win at Myreside thanks to a late interception try by Sheldon Coulter (when Edinburgh had a three-on-one) and a last-minute miss off the tee by Craig Chalmers.

That same day saw Toulouse lose at Ebbw Vale, a side they had put 100 points on earlier in the competition, and that shock result gave Ulster a home quarter-final that nobody could possibly have predicted.

Ulster celebrate beating Toulouse 15-13 in the 1998-99 European Cup quarter-final

Sweet: the QF win v Toulouse, who’d described Ulster as not fit to share the same pitch after a pool clash

The 15-13 quarter-final win over star-studded Toulouse is famously remembered for the will-he-won’t-he cliffhanger surrounding Ulster’s adopted son and Ireland flanker Andy Ward, whose wife was due to give birth to their first child. In the end, Ward played the first 50 minutes before rushing off to hospital in the RUC chief constable’s car.

Son Zachary (now a very good young player) arrived at almost 10pm that night, so as it happened Ward could have finished the game, but Ulster marched on regardless.

McCall had endured a four-month neck injury lay-off but was due to be available for the semi-final against French champions Stade Français. Instead, his back went into spasm after he bumped into a passer-by in the street and he decided to retire as a player.

After Stade complained about the scheduling of the match on a Friday night, on the grounds it would prevent French TV from covering it, EPCR forced Ulster to switch to a Saturday afternoon kick-off.

It was a bright, sunny day but Mike Reid, Ulster’s CEO, spent £700 he didn’t have to by keeping the floodlights on until after the match!

David Humphreys and Mark McCall of Ulster lift the European Cup, 1999

Mark 2: Mark McCall (right) lifted the cup as a retired player before launching an amazing coaching career

Humphreys scored his most memorable try, Ulster got home 33-27 and things hit fever pitch. Ulster Rugby in those days was a small business with a turnover of £200,000 and only four full-time staff. So when demand for tickets for the Dublin final went off the scale, players were roped in to help dispatch them.

Bradley brings the story to its crescendo with a polish and a level of detail that elevates the book throughout. We learn too of the subsequent rapid descent, with Ulster losing all six pool games the following season. It would be 12 years before they even reached the knockout stage again.

By then Harry Williams had long retired, the head coach ending his second stint in charge in 2001. Ulster’s style of rugby wasn’t the most flamboyant, being based largely on Mason’s kicking ability, Humphreys’s off-the-cuff artistry and a four-up blitz defence that at the time was quite revolutionary.

Harry Williams, coach of Ulster's 1999 European Cup-winning side

Old school: at 55, teacher Harry Williams had taken the plunge by going full-time as coach with Ulster

It was rugby that played to the players’ strengths, and to the hostile conditions that could readily materialize at Ravenhill, and it was incredibly effective.

“Harry really was so underestimated,” recalls Mason of his former coach. “He was this wily sort of football-type manager and he was old school in his values. He found the way to keep everyone in this amazingly positive mindset.”

The Last Amateurs is a fabulous book that will appeal to all and is published by Blackstaff Press, RRP £9.99 or €12.99. You can buy it here.

The publishers have kindly provided us with six copies to give away in a competition. For a chance to win one, look at the photo below and answer the question beneath it, filling in your details. The competition closes on Tuesday 5 March.

Ulster's Darren Cave in the 2012 European Cup final

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The competition closes at 23.59pm on Tuesday 5 March 2019.

Six winners will be selected at random, each winning a copy of the book, The Last Amateurs by Jonathan Bradley.

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