Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Ulster Rugby's stock on the rise

Big stars and thousands of fans are flocking to Ravenhill

To many of the current generation of Ulster rugby supporters who have grown up with a nine-month season of competitive fixtures week-in and week-out, it probably comes as quite a surprise to learn that there was a time – in the not too distant past – when things were different.

Before anyone had ever heard of the Heineken Cup or the Celtic League in whatever guise, Ulster's campaign – I'm using the noun very, very loosely – by and large consisted of August/September warm-up games against Yorkshire and Lancashire, followed some time later by inter-provincial dates against Leinster, Munster and Connacht.

Very occasionally there were matches against touring international sides; Australia in 1984 and New Zealand – then as now the world champions – five years later.

That was staple for Ulster legends David Irwin, Trevor Ringland, Willie Anderson, Keith Crossan, Steve Smith, Philip Rainey, Jimmy McCoy et al.

Mind you, in view of the dearth of competitive fixtures and the long waits between them, it was somewhat ironic that in November '89 another stalwart of that magnificent group – blind-side Philip Matthews – found himself facing the All Blacks three times in the space of a week in the colours of Ireland at Lansdowne Road, Ulster at Ravenhill and the Barbarians at Twickenham.

It's all very different these days, of course, with a guaranteed schedule of 22 PRO12 games and a minimum of six pool-stage outings in the Heineken Cup. Lob in the annual autumnal Guinness Series and the RBS 6 Nations Championship in February-March, with end-of-season tours to round it all off, and you can see there are no gaps in the modern-day professional players' programme.

It's a totally different era to that in which the above-named stars of yesteryear earned their reputations whilst earning their keep in erstwhile fields of employment elsewhere.

And it's a very different era from the spectators' viewpoint, too. In the days of Irwin, Anderson and co, there was a solitary concrete, steel, wooden and asbestos grandstand at Ravenhill. On the opposite side of the ground there was uncovered terracing which offered no protection from the elements. Behind both sets of goalposts, there were no facilities.

But in the event of Ulster managing to beat Leicester Tigers on Saturday night at Welford Road, thereby earning themselves a home quarter-final, the by-then-finished, new Ravenhill will be capable of hosting 18,200.

In the 1980 and 1990s during which Ulster ruled the Irish provinces' roost, anyone predicting such vast crowds and magnificent facilities as we now see at Ravenhill would have been dismissed as fool.

But it has come to pass. Indeed, Ulster's reputation today as a rugby hotbed is extending far these shores, a point reinforced by Irish-qualified South African, Robbie Diack, who in the course of a fascinating conversation I had with him earlier this week, pointed to the growing, worldwide interest in what is going on here.

Now, let's not get carried away; no-one is suggesting that it's on a scale comparable to the global sales of Liverpool or Manchester United merchandise. But it is highly significant that, in Diack's words, "this is a club that's on the map of world rugby and, because it is, players want to come."

He points to the recruitment – for which Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, rightly earns the plaudits – of overseas players like South Africans Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, BJ Botha, Pedrie Wannenburg and Stefan Terblanche and New Zealanders John Afoa and Jared Payne as having sparked interest here.

Diack said: "When I go back to South Africa, people are talking about Ulster. Ruan Pienaar could have gone to any club in the world, but he has decided to stay here for another three years. That is huge."

His enthusiasm and belief in what is happening here saw him sign a a three-year contract extension.

"You only have to come here and have a look at the facilities, the gym, the coaching staff, the conditioning staff, the players and the squad. It's a talking point in world rugby.

"I think David Humphreys is in a great position where it would be easy for him to get players to come here," Diack added.

He misses one important point, alas. Through no fault of his own, Humphreys is handicapped by not knowing what future there is for the Heineken Cup and PRO12, or what will replace those competitions if they cease to be. Until others come up with solutions, he is unable to provide answers to the questions prospective recruits are bound to ask.

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