Ulster Rugby chiefs and fans can start looking forward to a new golden era following the announcement of a £15m Stormont Executive-aided revamp of Ravenhill, taking the capacity of the famous old east Belfast ground from 12,300 to 18,200.
Increased attendances and revenues when work is completed in 2015 will in turn allow facilities and, in particular the Ulster team, to be even further enhanced.
Work will begin towards the end of this year and, when finished, will render Ravenhill capable of staging showpiece matches such as a Pro 12 final.
The major boost was announced jointly at Ravenhill yesterday by Environment Minister Alex Attwood and Sports Minister Carál Ní Chuilín and warmly welcomed by Ulster Rugby Chief Executive Shane Logan.
Existing stands at the Memorial and Aquinas ends of the ground will be rebuilt and the old grandstand replaced completely.
Sports Minister Ní Chuilín described the announcement as a key milestone in the development of her regional sports stadiums programme which follows the Executive pledge of £138m for the upgrade of the province's main sporting citadels.
Ulster GAA chiefs have already launched plans to make Casement Park in Belfast this country's biggest stadium with a 40,000 capacity from their £61.4million share of the pot.
That just leaves the Irish FA, with a similar amount pledged, to come up with their plans for a new national football stadium at Windsor Park.
For now it is rugby's turn to celebrate with Ulster Chief Executive Shane Logan commenting: “A modern, fit-for-purpose and spectator-friendly stadium will enhance Ulster Rugby’s standing and will assist the development of the sport from the grassroots through to international levels.
“The development at Ravenhill will not only benefit our sport but will have wider benefits for health, tourism and the local economy and we are privileged to be part of a legacy that will remain in Northern Ireland for years to come.”
While Sports Minister Ní Chuilín released the purse strings, Environment Minister Attwood paved the way for the new Ravenhill to rise by clearing planning permission for the ground improvements.
He stressed: “In arriving at my decision, I have given careful consideration to the need for a new stadium and views of the local community amongst others.
“I am satisfied that the new Ravenhill can be achieved without causing undue harm to the surrounding area or its citizens and Ulster Rugby will have a major role in this regard.”
The latest construction work at Ravenhill will take a phased approach and the ground will continue to host matches, albeit with a slightly reduced capacity, throughout the build.
The new Memorial End Stand will provide covered seating for 2,500 with terracing for a further 1,350 and will house a ticket office, shop and educational centre as well as matchday bar and catering.
The Aquinas End stand will be family-orientated with covered seating for 3,200. It will also accommodate team changing facilities, medical and treatment rooms, an indoor training surface and matchday media facilities.
Once the stands at the Memorial and Aquinas ends are completed, work will begin on the demolition of the existing stand and construction of a replacement 3,200-seat grandstand.
This stand will also house bar and restaurant facilities while the existing promenade will be upgraded to hold 3,250, taking the capacity of Ravenhill up to 18,200.
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