Leinster v Ulster: Johann Muller and his men are stars of big screen
Ulster looks like coming to a standstill at tea-time today with the entire population seemingly intent on following Johann Muller and his men in their bid for Heineken Cup glory.
The prize? The biggest accolade in European club rugby.
The opposition? Old rivals, Leinster, who — to borrow from Sir Alex Ferguson — are pretty noisy neighbours.
That said, they are entitled to crow, their confidence and verbosity stemming from the capture of two Heineken Cups in the past three seasons and, today, the chance of an unprecedented three in four years.
The venue? Twickenham, English rugby’s world-famous south-east London home, where hordes from Ireland’s two capital cities will assemble to watch their heroes slog it out for bragging rights.
The bookies have installed Leinster as runaway favourites, with Ulster cast in the role of also-rans.
But try telling that to the tens of thousands of Ulster supporters who, although not able to be at Twickenham in person, certainly will be there in spirit.
Tonight they are going to be crammed into their local rugby clubs, their favourite bars and hotels.
And they will also be flocking to the Belfast’s Odyssey Arena for which every one of the 4,000 tickets had been snapped up by mid-week.
With Belfast City Council, CoolFM, the Odyssey Trust Company and the Belfast Telegraph pooling their resources and big event know-how to ensure the success of the venture, it always promised to be a winner. Even so, the interest it has generated has surpassed even the most optimistic forecasts.
The doors on the ticket-only occasion open at 3.30 and from then until the kick-off 90 minutes later it’s going to be a case of fun and games before the match-proper is broadcast live on a 60x20 feet state-of-the-art screen.
Adrian Doyle, General Manager of the Odyssey Arena, said: “We’re delighted to be able to screen the Heineken Cup final.”
Nor is the fun confined to those lucky enough to have tickets for the 5pm screening, for as Adrian Doyle stressed: “There will be many activities happening in and around the Odyssey Pavilion to ensure that it’s a family sporting day extravaganza.”
Belfast’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Niall Ó Donnghaile, hailed the screening as a great family fun day out.
“Belfast City Council is delighted to be associated with the screening of the Heineken Cup Final at the Odyssey, giving local rugby fans a great opportunity to soak up the atmosphere in a great venue,” he said. “In the afternoon we will have a programme of activities on the front lawns of the City Hall to mark the unveiling of the Olympic Rings, so it promises to be a great day out for any family.”
Seen and heard: The buzz from the Ulster camp
Michael Sadlier on what's been happening in and around Ravenhill
No holiday, but still time for a tan
Ulster’s trip to Portugal last week wasn’t a holiday as Johann Muller pointed out.
The idea was to have a week of good, solid preparation away from the hype and to work hard and make up for the break in game-time.
Still some players did manage to get the sun — with Ruan Pienaar possibly getting the most obvious tan — and those who are not required for international duty will be hoping to top that up pretty soon.
Mac is focused on the job in hand
Brian McLaughlin’s final press conference as Ulster coach was a busy one as the room at Newforge was packed with media — but McLaughlin wasn’t biting when he was asked how he felt about it all.
He left quietly and unobtrusively and stated that the situation hadn’t really entered his thoughts as the focus is on the final and going for the win.
From Saturday evening onwards he can contemplate the reality of the situation.
Supporting families go a long way
Saturday will certainly be a family affair for the Ulster players, but some will be travelling that bit further.
Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Stefan Terblanche will all have family members jetting in to take in the Twickenham final.
Saturday will be particularly special for the 36-year-old Terblanche who will be playing his final game for Ulster and will return to South Africa to become Chief Executive of the South African Rugby Legends Association.