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Grounds for optimism at Ravenhill

By Niall Crozier

The switch of Ulster press conferences from Newforge to Ravenhill affords one the opportunity to witness the impressive ongoing drive to complete the final stages in the creation of a new purpose-built stadium.

Already three of the four sides are fully operational, with work on the old main grandstand site continuing a-pace.

Indeed, such has been the progress Ulster are confident that in the event of them qualifying for a home tie in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in the first weekend in April, the stadium will be wholly functional andirish

 able to host an attendance of just over 18,000.

Take it as read, then, that if they find themselves playing for a place in the penultimate round of European club rugby's premier tournament, there will not be an unsold seat or free standing space.

It was with just such a scenario in mind that they embarked on the bold venture to build a brand new stadium on the site of the old one, of course. And while there is a long way to go before anyone can start forming a queue for home quarter-final tickets, the fact of the matter is that Ulster are on target in every way.

The glorious summer gave way to an unusually dry autumn. And as yet, winter has not kicked in, which means work has proceeded ahead of schedule and within budget.

On-field, too, everything is on course; Ulster beat England's defending champions, Leicester Tigers, 22-16 in the first of their six Pool 5 matches and then followed that up with a magnificent 25-8 victory over Montpellier in France.

So, played two, won two, as a result of which Mark Anscombe's men are heading into their back-to-back fixtures against Benetton Treviso on each of the next two Saturdays as group leaders.

But a Heineken Cup quarter-final at Ravenhill next April is not only an objective; it is necessity, a minimum requirement, with Ulster's plans drafted with that in mind.

Past results confirm the considerable advantage of having a home tie when the competition reaches its knock-out stages, away-day wins having been the exception since the competition's inception.

Yes, Toulouse beat Dax in 1997 and Brive beat Wasps in 1998. But all four home quarter-finalists were victorious in 1999, 2000 and 2001, although Munster and Llanelli were on-the-road winners the following year, with Munster and Perpignan repeating the double-act stunt in 2003.

Biarritz Olympique were the only one of the four away-day quarter-finalists to win in 2004, ditto Leicester Tigers in 2005, with Leinster and Bath making it another on-the-road double back in 2006.

But Northampton Saints were the only last-eight visitors to emerge triumphant in 2007, with Munster in the same role in 2008. And while Leinster did it in 2009, all four home quarter-finalists were winners in 2010.

Toulouse won away from home in 2011, Ulster and ASM Clermont Auvergne made it a visitors' double in 2012 and Munster beat Harlequins at Twickenham in April 2013.

So do the maths: of the 68 quarter-finals staged since the Heineken Cup came into being, those playing at home have been winners on 51 occasions. That's a home-win ratio of three to one, confirming that those who host knock-out stage matches in this competition are very clear favourites.

Ulster learned a hard lesson last season when, despite having topped Pool 4 by virtue of a played six, won five record, they were nudged into fifth place by Saracens.

Anscombe's side's failure to rattle up big points tallies in the course of their victories was their undoing. Four of the six pool winners scored more points than Ulster, who bagged 126. Saracens scored 180, Harlequins 243, Clermont 213 and Toulon 186. Only Leicester scored fewer – 119.

But of course, even had Ulster achieved a top four finish in 2012-13 they could not have hosted a quarter-final as Ravenhill, at that stage, did not have the capacity demanded by tournament organisers.

This year, though, things are very different; this time, Ravenhill will be up to scratch, for which reason it is essential that Ulster win Pool 5 by a margin which guarantees them a home tie. That would make them 3/1 favourites to reach the semi-finals, roared on by almost all of the capacity crowd.

A second crack at the Kings of Europe crown in three seasons is the sort of consistency required en route to becoming champions – and the sort of track record that earns respect as well as making money.

Belfast Telegraph

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