Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Raucous Ravenhill a marvel to take pride from during Ulster Saracens clash

Off night: ref Garces red cards Jared Payne (15) to the dismay of captain  Johann Muller (centre)
Off night: ref Garces red cards Jared Payne (15) to the dismay of captain Johann Muller (centre)
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar during the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens at Ravenhill
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar during the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens at Ravenhill
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast

Afterwards, it was the desolation that struck you. As the last stragglers were rounded up and sent on their way, Ravenhill was enveloped in virtual silence with all that remained being the detritus of nearly 17,000 people blowing about the place and the less than raucous noise of those beginning the unenviable night shift task of clearing it all up.

The emptiness of the stadium reflected the emotion of most those who had watched Ulster's European exit unfold in dramatic fashion few hours earlier – though, admittedly, those final knots of spectators had somehow found it within themselves to be enjoying the occasion.

And that despite Jared Payne's red card and the impact it had on the contest.

After all, it had been a great night out with a pulsating game of rugby thrown in as well. True, but this was supposed to have been Ulster announcing themselves as European contenders on the night that their redeveloped stadium came of age.

Well, at least they got the stadium part right and, let's face it, sport has an uncanny way of not working out the way you hoped.

Afterwards, the quietly spoken Saracens coach Mark McCall, local lad and former Ulster coach, even made mention of how his side had not been prepared for the earth-shaking atmosphere.

The noise levels were truly raucous and echoed all around the ground throughout. The white flags flew and the support poured out onto the turf, lifting Ulster with it as the 14-man side took Sarries right to pretty much the last minute.

For those with long memories, the only atmosphere comparable to Saturday night was when Ulster saw off Stade Francais in early January 1999 on their way to winning an epic final. On that day there were officially 20,000 crammed into the old ramshackle ground but goodness knows how many had made it through the turnstiles.

And yet for sheer intensity of support, last Saturday probably topped what McCall – then still part of the playing squad – and all others who were at Ravenhill that day managed to experience.

Yes, it was a defeat – and one that may have done incalculable damage to Ulster's ambitions for the one piece of remaining silverware now on offer – but the outpouring of emotion that ratcheted up from late afternoon on made the hairs on the back of your neck stand.

The newly completed stand has now perfectly enclosed the new Ravenhill and with paying punters occupying every tier, the crescendo of ever increasing volume from the tightly packed ground washed in waves across the green sward. Payne's red card – played on the big screen as referee Jerome Garces pondered his decision – only further upped the ante in the ground as firstly his harsh dismissal was greeted with boos.

And how the team responded with a display that had the crowd on the edge of their seats throughout and might have even brought the win so many had craved.

But they fell short and all that remained was a final rendition of 'Stand Up' as the ground rose in praise to a magnificently brave Ulster effort. And then that desolation as silence gradually fell.

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