Ulster rugby is on the crest of a wave.
Unbeaten this season, the province’s professionals lead the RaboDirect PRO12 chase by six points from second-placed Scarlets and are top of Pool 4 in the Heineken Cup.
Work on the redevelopment of Ravenhill gets under way tomorrow with new stands scheduled to be in place at either end of the stadium by the end of the season. The entire £14.7m, 18,100 capacity project will be completed in 18 months, with demolition and replacement of the main grandstand — built in 1920 for £6,000 — the final piece of the jigsaw.
To that add the province’s record-number representation in the Irish camp during the current Guinness Series and the fact that even with 15 internationals absent through inclusion or injury, Ulster beat Zebre in a cliffhanger on Sunday.
Chief executive Shane Logan, highlighting rugby’s growth in Ulster, said: “In the last three years we have moved from 24 to 20 to 12 and now to eighth in the European rankings.
“We are closing in on the top and getting to the top is absolutely what we are determined to do.
“Our clubs’ and schools’ game is growing fast, too — a compounded rate of more than 5% per year. There are currently 30,000 rugby players in Ulster and we want to get that number to 42,000-45,000.
“That’s the number we need to have the generic base, or pyramid, to get two international teams — one playing for Ireland and the remainder playing here for Ulster.”
At the moment ambitious Ulster are in Italy where they are preparing for the second of their two back-to-back meetings with that country’s two RaboDirect PRO12 franchises.
That comes on Friday when, fresh from Sunday’s 27-25 win against Zebre in Parma, they will face Benetton Treviso.
In the wake of Sunday’s hard-earned victory, former Ireland flanker Andy Ward, highlighted the role of Ulster’s current management team — headed by Director of Rugby David Humphreys — in the side’s unbeaten run.
Ward was a member of the Ulster side which, with Humphreys as captain, reached the pinnacle of European club rugby in 1999.
Ward lauded the vision and confidence shown by his old skipper, head coach Mark Anscombe and assistants Neil Doak (attack) and Jonny Bell (defence).
“To succeed with so many experienced players unavailable through injury or international call-ups really is outstanding and full credit has to go to the coaching staff,” the 28 times-capped former Ireland flanker said.
“They put their faith in the young guys when they rotated the squad early on in the season and that has given them the experience and the belief that they can succeed when called upon.
“It’s really interesting to see how they’re getting on without some of the big name players and to have that strength in depth bodes really well for the future.”
Ward believes the spirit in the camp is self-evident, with the players confident about themselves as individuals and as a group.
“You can tell there is a real belief in their ability to succeed and there seems to be a real buzz about the place,” he added.
“The players are enjoying their rugby, as well as each other’s company, and that will give them the confidence they need to carry on their winning run.”