ELElevenVEN months on from their Heineken Cup final mauling, Ulster will have a chance to exorcise the ghost Twickenham 2012.
On April 6 they return to the scene of last year’s May 19 rout by Leinster who beat them 42-14 at the world-famous home of English rugby watched by a crowd of 81,774.
When they go back they will be helping to create history, for never before has the towering 82,000-capacity stadium in south-west London hosted a Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Four times Twickenham has staged the final of European club rugby’s biggest and most prestigious tournament and on four other occasions it has hosted matches, three in the pool stage and one semi-final.
But with none of those having been a last eight shoot-out, this is a first. And it features the first-ever Irish winners of the Heineken Cup, Ulster’s success in 1999 having paved the way for the wins recorded by Munster in 2006 and 2008 and Leinster in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
There is likely to be another first, too, for in view of Ulster’s sizeable travelling support and the number of exiles living in the south of England, it is expected the record for a UK-hosted Heineken quarter-final — 37,881 for last season’s Edinburgh v Toulouse clash at Murrayfield — will be broken.
Although Saracens and Ulster won their respective pools, both finishing with 23 points, the Aviva Premiership club — by virtue of having scored more tries— shaded the verdict, thereby earning themselves a home tie. But as the capacity at Allianz Park is just 10,000 and the Heineken Cup rules state that a quarter-final venue must be capable of accommodating at least 15,000, the ball has bounced in Ulster’s favour.
Despite their flat-out efforts to install 5,000 temporary seats acceptable to the safety standards of their local authority, Barnet Council, it proved impossible for Saracens whose Director of Rugby is former Ulster captain and coach Mark McCall.
And the fact that the match is at Twickenham rather than Saracens’ actual headquarters has delighted Ulster coach Mark Anscombe (pictured).
Although disappointed to have been nudged down to the fifth rung of the quarter-finalists’ ladder, he feels this has evened things up.
“I’m delighted, it’s an outstanding ground,” he said. “But more to the point is this — if we were at the Allianz Stadium with its 15,000, my understanding is that we only get 20% of the seats.
“Now 3,000 Ulster supporters as opposed to 20,000, well… I think that’s the key.”
With the likelihood of a vast Ulster support, Anscombe is confident that the setting and the nature of the occasion with provide real motivation. “It’s a big occasion at a big rugby ground with a lot of history there so we can go and strut our stuff,” he said.
Asked if taking Ulster to Twickenham in his first season has surpassed his expectations the affable Kiwi joked: “Of course not, I expected this! Didn’t you?”
But then he added these telling words: “No, more important than getting to Twickenham is getting to the Aviva (Stadium). But to do that, first we have to do the business at Twickenham.”
Mapping out the remainder of the season as he sees it, Anscombe asked rhetorically: “So what have we got? This match at Twickenham, two at the Aviva (Heineken Cup semi-final and final) and then two in front of the new stands at Ravenhill to finish the year off — PRO12 semi-final and final.
“If we do that, we all could go down the beach for a week and there’d be no rocks under the towels, would there!”
Twickenham’s easy accessibility will be a big draw for those travelling from Belfast, too — six miles from Heathrow, 20 miles from London City, 30 from Gatwick and 40 from Luton.