Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

A grand way to say goodbye to Ravenhill's iconic stand

RaboDirect PRO12 Play-Off, Ravenhill, Belfast 10/5/2013
Ulster vs Llanelli Scarlets
General view of Ravenhill 
Mandatory Credit ?INPHO/Dan Sheridan
General view of Ravenhill

Last Friday evening signified an historic moment at Ravenhill with the last home game before the 90 year old main grandstand gets hauled down.

The use of the word 'grand' is apt – my goodness it has seen some rugby in its time.

My father grew up hanging over the front railings watching his heroes in white – I was weaned on legendary tales of Jack Kyle and Jimmy Nelson, those two Ulster and Ireland greats, who contributed to the first Grand Slam in 1948.

It was graced by the likes of Mike Gibson and the greatest Lion of all, Willie John McBride – two players who could feature on a world's best rugby XV of all time.

The Jimmy D-inspired unbeatable Ulster side of the 1980s saw provincial rivals come and go all with the same result – victory for Ulster.

Then, just before the Millennium was out, the old stand witnessed the incredible exploits of Ulster's journey to European Cup glory.

The scourge of French teams, anything with the word Stade in front of it was repelled, whether of the Francais or Toulousain variety.

In recent years there has been a marked advance in the quality of international players that have pulled on the shirt. The foreign contingent have been of an increasingly world class nature and along with the conveyor belt of local talent the standard of play has continued to improve.

The team is revisiting the knockout stages of competitions, and so too is the expectation of supporters growing.

Like my father, I have also followed the family tradition (or was it brainwashing?).

My first real memories of the grandstand was when watching Grosvenor, my father's alma mater, lift the Schools' Cup in 1983. In my youthful eyes, the schoolboys all seemed to have beards and look more like men.

Twenty years on, I can remember being back on that terrace with a group of my father's old rugby mates.

I had grown up being regaled with tales of not just his rugby prowess, "A Howe never drops the ball" (I broke that one early), but also his ability on a dancefloor.

As a son, you are obliged to take this paternal hyperbole with a pinch of salt.

However, standing watching a game, one of his friends whispered in my ear "I don't know if you know this, but your father was the best dancer I have ever seen – when he started, we just stopped to watch".

My mates have probably stopped and watched me a few times, but alas for all the wrong reasons!

My point here is that the old grandstand and terrace hold the richest of memories for me – both rugby and personal. Ulster Rugby has been consistently strong in that it encourages and embodies a sense of family.

And I am not alone. Over the years thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, will have memories of their own. And so it continues.

Innovation on the pitch and the increased popularity of the sport has led to a demand for better infrastructure off it.

One can never stand still. To do so is to wither as others constantly look for continual improvement.

Pushing on is the only thing to do and it is heartening to see the funding in place for new development.

Rugby in Ulster transcends all boundaries, it is truly international, yet is still a family occasion and still respects decent principles of sportsmanship, for example silence for the kicker.

Ulster did a grand job of saying farewell to the old stand last Friday night.

The rugby was high quality and the crowd was in great form – they seem to be getting better and better.

Have no doubts, it makes a difference, the team feeds off it and it is appreciated.

It makes sense that Ulster is offering fans the opportunity to buy a seat from the historic Grandstand.

A moment please, however – what is happening to the owl that has hung for so long from the rafters to scare off the pigeons?

For years it has had the best seat in the house and has witnessed all the action.

Surely, this should be an auction item, but if not, can I have it?

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