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Monday, 7 October, 2002, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Ulster homing in on Europe
Ulster fly-half David Humphreys who scored 37 points against Wasps last season.
Humphreys set a Heineken Cup record last season

One wonders if Ulster coach Alan Solomons has got it right for the new Heineken Cup campaign.

Solomons has all the wisdom of his biblical namesake, and has plotted his attack on Europe with military precision.

He will need to with Northampton, Cardiff and French champions Biarritz in a highly-competitive group.

When Ulster walked on to the Lansdowne Road pitch three years ago, and triumphantly marched off with the European Cup, it set down an impossible marker.

  Pool 6:
Biarritz
Cardiff
Northampton
Ulster

Some say that Ulster have been celebrating since. Well, why not!

Although it was a sponsorless competition without English participation, they did beat the best the rest had to offer, including three top French sides.

But while Solomons inherited a replica cup, he also had a poor set-piece to contend with when he arrived in the province in June 2001.

But the former assistant Springbok coach saw Ulster reach a Celtic League semi-final last season, while in Europe, they won four of their six pool games.

He had hoped to go one step forward this season and he had the players in place to do just that.

I say he had. The loss of his key back-row forward Robbie Brink was a disastrous blow. He was Solomons's banker.

Ulster prop Robbie Kempson a former Springbok front-row forward
Robbie Kempson one of the best props in Europe
The ''Tank'', as he was known in South Africa, played only 114 minutes rugby for Ulster over two seasons, and then a recurrence of a shoulder problem saw him retire from the game.

Skipper Andy Ward, often the catalyst to draw out Ulster's spirit, is out until the end of November following ankle surgery.

The loss of the talented utility back Paddy Wallace was another shock to the system. The Ireland A fly-half broke his leg against Swansea last month and will be out until the New Year.

But all is not lost for Solomons. He still has Robbie Kempson and Matt Sexton, who have now made Ulster's scrum a unit to fear.

Kempson is probably the best prop in the competition - either side of the scrum.

The former Springbok may not be a big animal of a front-row forward, but his technical nous and strength is phenominal.

Coupled with Lions lock Jeremy Davidson re-inventing himself, Ulster's scrum is one area unlikely to waver.

Jeremy Davidson handed Ulster's captaincy after the injury to Andy Ward
Jeremy Davidson now leading from the front

Davidson, after years of injury woe - he has still occasionally has knee twinges - is now leading from the front after being given the captain's role in the absence of Ward.

Then, of course, there is David Humphreys. There is no doubt that he will be the key to Ulster progressing to the knock-out stages for only the second time in their history.

Humphreys has been there, done that, and wants to do more.

He captained Ulster to their 1999 success and his 37 personal points against Wasps last season was a Heineken Cup record.

With international commitments this season, he has had only one full game for Ulster so far, and he is as fresh as a daisy.

Ulster know all about Cardiff, having squared up to them in the inaugural tournament and the season before last - and neither time winning at the Arms Park.

Solomons knows all about Wayne Smith the Saints coach, having watched him ply his trade in the Super 12.

''I have a lot of time for Wayne. He is an excellent coach and he has now knocked Northampton into quite a formidable unit,'' said Solomons.


The Ravenhill crowd are absolutely fantanstic
Alan Solomons

''We could not have wished for a tougher game to start off with.

''But overall it is a very tough group and I would say one of most difficult to qualify from.''

Ulster's bonus is that while their away record is a bit ropey, no team likes travelling to Belfast.

Many a side has witnessed Ravenhill's ''Theatre of Pain'' where the crowd participation is worth a six-points start to Ulster.

''The Ravenhill crowd is absolutely fantanstic,'' said Solomons.

''They have been right behind the team, even when they are down.

''They just keep coming back and supporting the boys, and it does give them a great lift.''

It is a pity that they cannot be transported to Northampton, Biarritz and Cardiff, as I feel that life on the road may not be as productive.


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