Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Gavin Mairs: It's good to have you back Ireland

As if to welcome the rarefied presence of the Ireland squad in Belfast, the sun has shone all week to at least give us a late glimpse of summer.

It has been 53 years since Ireland last played a full international at Ravenhill and tonight's hugely-anticipated match against Italy at last bridges that gap.

When Ireland were last in town, Jack Kyle was still in his pomp, although with great irony he missed the last Ravenhill game against Scotland in February 1954, failing to win selection on his comeback from injury.

Two tries from Maurice Mortell, a welcome guest at Ravenhill tonight along with fellow survivors Gerry Reidy, Ronnie Kavanagh, captain Jim McCarthy as well as Kyle, was good enough to account for the Scots in a 6-0 victory.

On the previous evening, the Belfast Telegraph had previewed the game as the "the first leg of a great sporting double" with huge excitement also surrounding the fight at the King's Hall between Belfast's Tommy 'The Spider' Kelly and Parisien Robert Cohen.

As a coincidence, 53 years later and Ireland's return to Ravenhill comes just two days after Northern Ireland's big victory over Liechtenstein in the European Championship qualifier at Windsor Park.

Belfast is once again buzzing with top class international sport and with the heightened sense of optimism sparked by the recent political settlement, there has never been a better time to showcase the city.

With a temporary stand up at Ravenhill taking the capacity up to 14,100, Eddie O'Sullivan's side can expect the warmest of welcomes.

Four years ago, when Ireland played Italy at Thomond Park before the World Cup, the Leinster players spoke about the unfamiliar sensation of being cheered on by a Limerick crowd.

Similarly, Munster hero Paul O'Connell has already spoken this week about his eagerness to lead out the side at Ulster's fortress and have the Ravenhill crowd roaring his side on for once. He will not be disappointed.

It will of course be a special night for the three Ulster players in the line-up - Andrew Trimble, Rory Best and Neil Best.

But with the World Cup looming, rugby supporters in the province are just relishing the prospect of having the best Ireland side available for selection, strutting their stuff in Ulster's backyard.

Importantly though the sense of occasion must not over-shadow the big picture. After a flat showing against Scotland and a bit-part showing in the fractious encounter against Bayonne, Ireland desperately need an full-throttle 80-minute performance to blast away any lingering pre-season rust and enable them to depart for Bordeaux in rude health.

The pack can expect another fierce examination from the visitors while all eyes will be on how Andrew Trimble gels with Gordon D'Arcy.

It's great to see you back Ireland, don't be so long next time.

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