Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

There's a marked change for McCall

Mark McCall returns to a new modern Ravenhill next weekend

As the eagerly-awaited Ulster versus Saracens Heineken Cup quarter-final draws ever closer, there is a real sense of this being a very special time for rugby hereabouts.

Ten days and counting. Never has the level of interest or the sense of occasion been greater. People who have never been to a rugby match in their lives or normally have little interest in the sport are talking about this one. It really is quite remarkable.

The stage could not be better set. Saracens' Director of Rugby is Mark McCall, Ulster's non-playing captain back in 1999, the year they won the European Cup.

When the neck injury which saw him miss out on Ulster's greatest achievement finally and cruelly forced his retirement from the game, he turned to coaching. And it was in that capacity that he led his province to their last trophy success, the 2006 Celtic League as it was known before the admission of the Italian franchises.

The stadium to which McCall will return is unrecognisable from the one he left. When he departed in November 2007, facilities for players and spectators alike were Spartan – a concrete stand dating from 1923, complete with an asbestos roof, with changing facilities and a bar in keeping with everything else in terms of comfort or, more accurately, the complete lack thereof.

The complete rebuild of Ravenhill began in 2008 when the terracing on the side of the ground facing the grandstand was ripped up to make way for a new corporate stand which opened for business in September 2009.

It features 532 premier seats, 20 high-spec corporate boxes plus full bar and restaurant facilities. The £5.5million it cost is arguably the smartest money ever spent on rugby in Ulster in that it attracted people with money to spend.

Emboldened by that, Ulster sought funding from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure with a view to building new stands behind the goalposts at Ravenhill's War Memorial and Aquinas ends and, finally, replacing the old main stand. Minister Nelson McCausland duly gave the go-ahead and in November 2012 funding worth £14.7 million was secured.

Neither Ulster nor contractors Gilbert-Ash NI Ltd dragged their heels. Remarkably, the Memorial End (covered seating for 2,400 with terracing for a further 1,350) and Family Stands (covered seating for 2,100 with terracing for a further 1,300) were ready for the start of the current season.

Facilities at Memorial End include The Nevin Spence Education Centre – which aims to promote the benefits of nutrition, healthy lifestyle and the values of sport – a ticket office, shop and bar/catering areas.

The Family (Aquinas) Stand houses the Ulster senior squad's training base which includes a state-of-the-art gym, meeting rooms, team changing facilities, treatment rooms, an indoor training surface and match-day media facilities.

The last of the four new stands will be open on Saturday week for the first time when 3,450 seated spectators will have use of it. The new promenade accommodating 3,400 standing fans has been operational for some time, which means that when the Aviva Premiership leaders run out on April 5, it will be to perform on a superb, purpose-built stage surrounded by an 18,000-strong audience.

The last time Ulster had a home quarter-final was 1999 when they beat Toulouse 15-13 before a crowd of 11,500. Some readers will recall that as the night Andy Ward exited to a hero's ovation in order to attend the birth of his first child in Lagan Valley Hospital.

Subsequent to that, those of us who were among 20,000 souls precariously shoehorned into Ravenhill for the post-Christmas semi-final against Stade Francais remember that as being the occasion of David Humphreys' superb try in Ulster's 33-27 victory.

In terms of spectator comfort and safety, obviously April 5, 2014 will be a whole lot better than December 11, 1998 and January 9, 1999 when Harry Williams' Ulster team saw off two French giants.

If the outcome is as good as on either of those occasions, Ulster supporters will be delighted. And if it does come to pass that Mark Anscombe's men put Saracens to the sword, doubtless McCall will reflect on the massive improvements Ulster have made on and off the pitch since his departure.

I'd bet he will recall that on the only previous occasion Ulster had a home quarter-final, not only did they win that day, they went on to be crowned Kings of Europe.

Fifteen years on, it's time history repeated itself.

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