Northern Ireland

Ulster's Heineken Cup quest on hold for another year

Ulster supporters
Image caption Ulster supporters before the match began

One game was a nail-biting finish. The other was arguably a forgone conclusion by the second half.

It was a big evening for sport but while Chelsea won its battle to be champions of Europe, Ulster left Twickenham without the title that it won 13 years ago.

The rugby juggernaut that is Leinster was not going to be stopped in its quest to defend its European crown and take the trophy for the third time in four years.

Whatever the end result - and for Ulster fans, it makes for painful reading 42-14 - the build-up to this hotly contested final was marked by an atmosphere of bonhomie amongst the fans.

Blue rugby shirts and red, black and white shirts merged into one as a sea of supporters weaved through the roads that lead to Twickenham.

Inside the famous stadium, as the clock ticked ever closer to kick off time, the colours of both teams filled most of the 82,000 seats.

Ulster supporters were out in strength but it was hard not to notice the overwhelming numbers of their Leinster counterparts in the crowd.

The minutiae of the match that followed can be left to the sporting pundits of this world but this reporter knew the game was up when a steady stream of Ulster supporters started to file out of Twickenham after another Leinster try in the 75th minute.

Underdogs

Try as they might, this was not to be Ulster's time to relive the glory days of 1999 but post match, ardent followers of the Ulstermen, like Richard McKeen, talked of their continuing pride in their team.

"We were complete underdogs from the outset and we knew that, but I think Ulster put in a good performance. Every single man played to his potential. We couldn't have asked any more of them and the supporters are very proud," he said.

Rab Toland from Belfast was magnanimous in defeat.

Standing outside the stadium after the game, he said the atmosphere amongst all the supporters had been tremendous.

"In true rugby spirit we have been having lots of banter and craic with the Leinster fans.

"It has been a glorious day but we just didn't get the result we needed and in the end, the best team one," he said.

Image caption The colours of both teams filled most of the 82,000 seats.

While many Ulster fans went off into the Twickenham night to drown their sorrows, Leinster followers were gearing up for a night of celebrations.

Some of them told me why the Leinster team had lived up to its "favourites" tag.

"With Sean O'Brien (Leinster flanker) in the pack, Ulster were never going to win. What an amazing man and he was also man of the match."

Another Leinster fan offered words of support for an Ulster team still chasing that elusive second European title.

"Just stick at it. Ulster are a good team, they got to the final this year. They just need a bit more creativity (on the pitch) and they will get there."

As the lights went down on another final at Twickenham, supporters drifted towards the town's numerous bars to watch that other sporting highlight, the Champions League final.

Some Ulster rugby fans, who also follow Chelsea, were able to console themselves with a penalty shoot-out that saw the Stamford Bridge crew triumph.

As one Ulster supporter shouted to me above the din in the bar: "This is the Blues year, next year will be Ulster's - I'm sure of that."

A prediction the Ulstermen will hope comes true.