Thousands of Ulster fans make trek to Twickenham for big game
The home of English rugby is bracing itself for an Ulster invasion. Up to 20,000 fans are heading for today's Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Saracens at Twickenham.
When released, Ulster supporters snapped up 7,500 tickets and thousands more – both from here and ex-pats living in England – have also reserved a coveted seat.
Some 34,000 tickets have been sold but there's expected to be a last minute surge for tickets.
On Thursday night there were few remaining spaces on flights from Belfast to London, with a return ticket costing up to £340.
A spokesman for Belfast City Airport said there was a buzz throughout the facility. He said: "From Friday until Saturday lunchtime we have 26 flights going to London. There are no extra scheduled flights and all of those flights are operating to full or near full capacity."
Belfast International Airport, where the team flew from yesterday, said its London flights are also almost at full capacity.
Ulster's famed away support is expected to help break the record attendance for a UK-hosted Heineken Cup quarter-final, the previous being 37,881 for a match last season. The crunch tie is predicted to take place in front of a crowd in excess of 45,000.
Despite being an away game on paper, the vocal backing for the Ulster players will make the game feel like a home match.
An Ulster Rugby spokesman said fans were rallying behind the team and giving their backing to the 'make Twickenham home' campaign. He said: "The thing about Ulster rugby fans is that no matter where we play the fans come and support the team en masse."
Last year Ulster suffered final heartache at the hands of Leinster at the same venue.
It was the closest they come to lifting to trophy since victory in 1999, having to wait until 2011 to even qualify again for the knockout stages of the prestigious competition.
Spice has been added with director of rugby at Saracens a former Ulster star.
Mark McCall previously captained and coached the province.
The Bangor man warned his former colleagues his side were well-prepared for the tie.
"Ulster are a really good team – but we are in a good place at the moment," he said. Ahead of the match the ball has already bounced in Ulster's favour.
Given Saracens and Ulster won their respective qualifying pools, the game was due to take place at Saracen's Allianz Park as they notched up more tries during the campaign.
But as the ground holds just 10,000, the game was moved to Twickenham, much to the delight of Ulster coach Mark Anscombe.
"I'm delighted, it's an outstanding ground," he said.
"But more to the point is this – if we were at the Allianz Stadium my understanding is that we would only get 20% of the seats. Now 3,000 Ulster supporters as opposed to 20,000, well ... I think that's the key."
Factfile: Heineken Cup
Up to 20,000 Ulster fans will travel to Twickenham for today's Heineken Cup quarter-final. This year's competition is being fought out between three former champions in Leicester Tigers, Munster and Ulster. Ulster last lifted the trophy in 1999 and made it to last year's final.