By Richard Petrie
Willie Faloon scored Ulster's vital second try
Ulster restored pride and passion in the white jersey and fired a warning shot across the bows of Europe's leading Heineken Cup contenders with a thoroughly deserved 26-12 over Guinness Premiership outfit Bath at Ravenhill - and how their fans loved it.
Earlier this year the Irish province celebrated the 10th anniversary of their finest hour - that never-to-be-forgotten European Cup final victory at Lansdowne Road - and while they have continued to dine at the continent's top table ever since, they have been left mostly feeding on scraps.
But this was a feast for Ulster's success-starved supporters - a potent mixture of determination, organisation, discipline and clinical finishing which proved way too much for the 1998 champions.
The visitors may be ranked 15 places above Ulster in the official ERC rankings, fifth against 20th, but this match made a mockery of those positions.
The build-up to Friday's cup opener saw expectations raised to an almost dangerously high level, with recent impressive form in the Magners League providing cause for optimism and a new-found faith in Brian McLaughlin's rapidly improving young guns.
Bath, on the other hand, had started their season poorly by their standards, one win in five league matches indicating that they would struggle to replicate their progress to the semi-finals of three years ago.
Coach Steve Meehan struck a pessimistic note prior to the match, stating plainly that his bulky Bath side faced an uphill task against a resurgent Ulster team backed by a hostile home crowd.
Meehan's apprehension was no doubt coloured by his experience of two Ravenhill defeats while assistant coach at Stade Francais, but nevertheless his pre-match assessement seemed somewhat downbeat considering a ball had not even been kicked in the new campaign.
Before the game, a carnival atmosphere prevailed at the famous old Belfast venue, with stiltwalkers, fire-eaters and jugglers greeting spectators as they filed through the turnstiles.
Many of the 10,900-plus crowd availed themselves of the red and while Ulster flags and jesters' hats being handed out inside the ground and the bars, burger vans, coffee vendors and merchandise stalls attracted long queues.
Colourful headgear was the order of the day at Ravenhill
"European Cup Winners 1999" was still inscribed on many of the souvenirs on offer - evidence of a continuing sense of living on past glories which this young Ulster side hopes to banish.
Somewhat ironically, U2's "Beautiful Day" came blaring through the tannoy as heavy rain pounded down on the Ravenhill pitch and the sea of flags, scarves and hats in all corners of the ground created a colourful backdrop for what everyone hoped was going to be a very special European Friday night occasion.
The Ulster players received a rapturous reception as they completed their pre-match jog around the pitch and even home mascot Sparky appeared to have an extra spring in his step.
As always for Heineken Cup matches, ticket sales had been brisk leading up to the match and the packed press benches indicated a high level of interest in the game as English accents threatened to outnumber those of the local media corps.
With the pre-match preamble over, Bath took to the pitch to muted applause, while the Ulster team's arrival was greeted by a display of fireworks, with the resultant smoke drifting across the pitch delaying kick-off by a few minutes.
The first rendition of 'Stand up for the Ulstermen' reverberated around the packed grandstands and terraces and as the PA announcer urged the fans to even greater efforts, the home crowd hoped the game itself would live up to the pre-match hype.
Bath took an early lead through a Ryan Davis penalty and a smattering of applause indicated a decent travelling support.
By the time Ian Humphreys replied in kind for Ulster, even the guests in the new hospitality boxes had deserted their indoor video screens and taken seats in the open air, reluctant to miss any of the action and sensing that something special was about to unfold.
What a baptism this was to be for the impressive new £4.5m stand which celebrated its official opening and housed the corporate clan.
Soon the decibels reached new levels as Clinton Schifcofske broke clear in a pre-rehearsed move and passed to fans' favourite, the flying Fijian winger Timoci Nagusa, who powered over in the corner.
The in-form fly-half largely dictated the play with flashes of flair which signalled he may be emerging from the shadows of elder brother David
The ground erupted and Humphreys had those in the stands on their feet again soon after when he slotted over the conversion.
The visitors struggled to keep hold of the ball in the testing conditions but a further Davis penalty reduced their deficit and kept the home fans on tenterhooks, and their nerves jangling.
Humphreys was just off-target with a further penalty attempt but the in-form fly-half largely dictated the play with flashes of flair which signalled he may be emerging from the shadows of elder brother David, who was keeping a watchful eye from the stand in his new role as Director of Rugby.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney was another interested spectator and he must have been impressed by the dedication and commitment of Ulster's talented homegrown players.
Half-time heralded the announcement of details of this season's final in Paris in May 2010, though for Ulster fans a first quarter-final appearance for a decade was the first priority in their minds.
"Bath are really rattled by Ulster's approach - the fierce aggression, the intense tackling," summed up BBC Radio Ulster match analyst Maurice Field at the interval.
"Ulster are being dominated by their opponents' massive pack - but they are not being intimidated. They just want to cut out conceding so many penalties," he told listeners.
Ulster's Heineken hopes had floundered at the first hurdle in recent seasons, with home defeats by Gloucester and Stade Francais immediately putting paid to any realistic hopes of last eight qualification, but a barnstorming second half performance suggested this year could be different.
The hard-working forwards set up the platform for Humphreys to knock over a drop-goal just two minutes after the break and although Davis responded with his third penalty, the writing was on the wall for Bath when impressive hooker Andy Kyriacou broke clear on the shoulder of Ian Humphreys and found Willie Faloon who raced clear to score under the posts for the defining moment of the game.
The fly-halves traded penalties once again but when Humphreys made it 23-12 with another successful kick, everyone knew it was game over, job done.
Red and white flags added to the spectacle at Ravenhill
Ulster began to throw the ball about as their confidence grew while Bath's play was littered with errors, strewn with dropped balls and knock-ons, as they crumbled under the pressure exerted by the men in white.
A further penalty by Humphreys, the introduction of replacement wing Simon Danielli on the eve of his wedding, the announcement of Faloon as man of the match and the sending-off of Andy Beattie in the dying minutes served only to add to the delight of the home faithful.
"Ulster's discipline was much better in the second half - they managed to keep their penalty count down and they were the dominant team on the pitch throughout, totally deserving of the win," said radio match summariser Ryan Constable after the final whistle.
"They had two try-scoring opportunities and they took them both. You don't get many such chances at this level but Ulster were clinical in their execution," he enthused.
The ecstatic home supporters roared their approval and demanded a lap of honour - and the players duly obliged, evoking memories of that famous 1999 semi-final win over Stade Francais in which Humphreys senior had played such an important part.
And even he got caught up in the euphoria after this morale-boosting win by a team determined to make fresh headlines of their own.
"With the momentum we have created, we will be hard to beat if we play well. It's just like the old Friday nights at Ravenhill when we put some of Europe's top teams to the sword," he stated after the game.
So next up, it's Edinburgh at Murrayfield - and something of a score to settle after the recent narrow defeat in the Magners League.
Coach McLaughlin is perhaps left with the unenviable job of keeping everyone's feet on the ground and keeping a lid on growing expectations after this thrilling success, but better that than trying to pick up his squad after an opening day failure.
"Don't Stop Believing" by Journey is the PA announcer's usual choice of song as fans drift home post-match and Ulster fans are surely starting to believe again, daring to dream that the heady days of 1999 may be, just may be, about to return.