David Humphreys: 'Mark McCall was the captain of Ulster - I was just the replacement captain.'
DAVID Humphreys has revealed that he neither wanted nor expected to be handed the Ulster captaincy in the season when the province lifted the Heineken Cup after Mark McCall had been forced to retire with a serious neck injury.
Now director of rugby at Gloucester, Humphreys proved an inspirational replacement for the Bangor man, who is now his former team-mate's opposite number at Saracens.?
Humphreys' journey to Lansdowne Road for the European final in which Ulster defeated French side Colomiers 21-6 in January 1999 was a tale of blood, sweat and tears.?
No Ulster fan will ever forget his courageous try-saving tackle in the 15-13 quarter-final win over Toulouse which left him injured and distraught after dislocating his shoulder in the process.?
However, his frustration soon turned to elation as he made a miraculous recovery and scored one of the most stunning tries ever seen at Ravenhill in the epic 33-27 semi-final win over Stade Francais.?
Yet, the former Ireland fly-half could scarcely have imagined that he would be in a position to be wearing the captain's armband earlier in the season let alone holding aloft the trophy at the end of it.?
"I had absolutely no aspirations to captain the side. I had no interest in doing it, not just because I thought Mark was the right man for the job but because I had no ambitions to do it," said Humphreys.?
"We were great friends as well as team mates and it shows the strength and character of the man that despite losing out, he and [Ulster coach] Harry Williams were the major influences in that year.?
"I think Harry asked me in the end because he had no one else. It had really got to a stage when he was struggling to find a captain and he chanced on me."?
The captaincy seemed to inspire Humphreys while others might have struggled with the added responsibility.
He admitted, however, that he was surprised that Ulster made it to the knock-out stages after an inauspicious start to their European campaign.?
An opening 38-38 home draw with Edinburgh was followed by a 39-3 defeat in Toulouse before a dramatic turnaround saw them secure four successive victories that sealed a home quarter-final.?
"My memory is somewhat clouded now but realistically, we didn't even contemplate getting out of the group," Humphreys said.?
"After three minutes of my first game as captain against Edinburgh, we were 14-0 down. I just stood there and didn't know what to say.?
"But after our [61-28] victory in Ebbw Vale, we knew we could win games and the next match at home to Toulouse was the start of everything.?
"People came along to watch Toulouse, not us, and big crowds only ever used to turn up at Ravenhill to watch so-called glamorous teams thump Ulster and I used it as a motivational factor in the dressing room. ?
"The team responded in style and that night, all of a sudden, for the first time ever, you sensed the crowd started to believe in us and, thinking back now, the 29-24 win was a magnificent result for us. ?
After a 43-18 home success over Ebbw Vale, Ulster's final group game was a winner-takes-all affair away to Edinburgh.
When the shock news filtered through that the previously winless Welsh side had beaten Toulouse, victory in Scotland was required for Humphreys' men to secure a home quarter-final.?
Sheldon Coulter's late try helped them to a 23-21 success, their hosts missing a last gasp penalty which would have spoiled the script.?
On to the quarter-final with Toulouse, and Humphreys had knocked over two drop goals before he made that painful exit.?
With two minutes left and with his side leading by two points, he made a crucial tackle on the tournament's leading try-scorer Michel Marfaing and was diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder.?
"As soon as I hit him, I realised something was wrong and I thought I'd broken my collarbone. I was shattered and all of a sudden we were in a European Cup semi-final and I was going to miss it," Humphreys suggested.?
But he recovered in time and went on to play a starring role in the 33-27 win over Stade Francais, scoring that wonder try, racing on to his own kick ahead and sprinting 70 metres before touching down in the corner.?
The final was something of a no-contest with Ulster emerging comfortable winners, 18 of the 21 points against Colomiers coming from the boot of full-back Simon Mason and the other three from a Humphreys' drop goal.?
Ulster's inspirational leader insisted that his McCall joined him in receiving the famous trophy in front of 49,000 delirious fans at a packed Lansdowne Road.?
"There was never any doubt about that. That's the kind of squad and team that we were. I just grabbed him and told him we were both going up. He was the captain of Ulster - I was just the replacement captain," Humphreys recalled with typical modesty.