Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Ulster rugby triumphs over our love of settling old scores

Given that togetherness was the theme of the Queen's Christmas message, who in the past year deserves an award towards that end?

The Queen herself? Yes, she could make a case for that after her remarkably inclusive Diamond Jubilee visit to Northern Ireland, following on from her visit to the Republic the year before.

The London Olympics? Yes, an obvious choice. But the BBC's cringingly patronising Sports Personality of the Year awards more than exhausted the appetite for any further recognition.

The coalition of David Cameron and Nick Clegg? Hardly an example of togetherness, as they spent so much of 2012 saying one thing one day and doing the opposite the next.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness? Possible candidates, yes. But fine words are no substitute for real action.

The Stormont Executive? Be careful. Don't tax your mind unduly trying to identify what it achieved towards togetherness in 2012.

As yet another year passes, we all have our memories of good times and, perhaps, not-so-good times in Northern Ireland.

Negatives are not hard to find in this society - especially after the step-back in the run-up to Christmas.

Still, there is always another year and much depends on whether you view the glass as half-empty, or half-full.

I happen to fall into the latter category and all the more so every time I watch the Ulster Rugby team and admire the uniqueness of its following.

If I could hand out a 2012 Award for Togetherness, it would go to Ravenhill rugby ground and the Ulster team.

As I watched Ulster defeat the current European rugby champions, Leinster, this month and joined in the proud chorus of the SUFTUM (Stand Up for the Ulstermen) army, my glass was as half-full as it could be - and I am referring to more than the pint of Murphy's stout in my hand at the time.

According to the BBC national news that evening, there were 38 flag protests and some of the fans going to Ravenhill were delayed.

Flags and emblems were certainly in abundance on the packed terraces and grandstands - Ulster flags, Northern Ireland flags, Leinster flags and team flags by the thousand - yet not a word was spoken in political anger, or sectarian divisiveness.

As I jostled with the thousands passing under the old war memorial clock, I was reminded of how the atmosphere at Ravenhill and in Northern Ireland was not always like that.

I recall interviewing some of the New Zealand All Blacks who agreed to play at Ravenhill on a wintry Saturday afternoon in 1972 at the height of the Troubles, when virtually no foreign team, or entertainer, would set foot in this province.

The All Blacks were given an emotional standing ovation as they took to the pitch. The fact that the match was taking place at all meant more to the local fans than the score (Ulster 6 New Zealand 19).

Who could have foreseen then that, 40 years on, the Ulster Rugby team would be watched and admired by millions across Europe and that, even in the depths of December 2012, tickets for the current matches would be, if not gold dust, then certainly hard to come by.

As 12,000 fans stood to welcome the Ulster and Leinster teams, I thought if only the community spirit of Ravenhill could be bottled and sold on our behalf to the outside world it would be more than a match for Guinness, or Bushmills, as well as a fine advertisement for this province in general. The fact that Ulster won made the occasion even better, but Ravenhill is about something greater than any scoreline.

It is about the united spirit of the crowd, not least in the deeply emotional rendering of Stand Up for the Ulstermen - a simple anthem to which everyone can subscribe with uninhibited fervour.

The sportswriters have a habit of calling Ravenhill a "fortress". I would be inclined to call it something more than that: an oasis of togetherness, where people from different walks of life and age-groups can really enjoy a night out. An example of sporting fraternity at its best.

Perhaps in the SUFTUM army of Ulster is the embodiment of a new common sense of regional identity.

We may step back from time to time, but, as 2013 beckons, the glass in hand must remain half-full.

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