Ulster Rugby's Ravenhill is envy of Europe
All-new Ravenhill's metamorphosis from a shabby, run-down sportsground into an ultra-modern, purpose-built home stadium for Ulster Rugby will take another huge stride towards completion tonight.
Finally, those who have watched the rise of the last and biggest of the four new grandstands will see it filled. What a fillip for sport in the province. What a testament to those who envisaged the evolution of what is now the best club-rugby stadium in Europe, if not the world.
The timing could not be better; not since 1999 – the year in which they went on to claim the title of European champions – have Ulster hosted a Heineken Cup quarter-final.
It says much for the confidence and belief they had in themselves that they set a first-weekend-of-April target date for completion of the new grandstand some time ago.
A home quarter-final has long been their objective and now, following three successive seasons of having had to travel at this stage of European club rugby's biggest tournament, they have fulfilled that ambition.
Tonight's attendance for their match with Saracens will be closer to 17,000 than the 18,200 capacity when re-built Ravenhill is fully operational, the decision having been taken to build towards that total incrementally in order to give stadium staff and stewards time to acclimatise to dealing with bigger numbers of spectators.
Ulster Rugby's Chief Executive Shane Logan (pictured) this week admitted that they have already begun to wonder if an 18,000-capacity stadium is going to be big enough.
"We will have held at least 16 games here by the end of this season and we've sold out 14 of those," he said.
As for what patrons can expect tonight, he explained: "The biggest difference will be that the grandstand – which is roughly 3,000 seats – will be full."
The contractors, Gilbert-Ash, have met every target, with each step of the magnificent re-build completed on time, to specification and within budget.
The new changing rooms do not come into use until the official opening on Friday, May 2 when Ulster and Leinster square up yet again – that being the oldest fixture in Ulster's proud history. It is also a re-run of last season's RaboDirect PRO12 final.
Tonight, then, the teams once again will use the temporary facilities under the Family (Aquinas End) Stand, emerging onto the pitch via the tunnel at that end of the stadium.
The President's Suite will not be in use tonight, either.
But although there are still some finishing touches to be done to the new bars, these will be "functionally ready" for tonight's match.
As soon as the season ends, the existing Ravenhill office block will be completely renovated in a job expected to take eight weeks from start to finish. The Nevin Spence Centre, housed in the Memorial End Stand, will be completed and the stadium's entrances and exits are to be upgraded, making them "more aesthetically pleasing and less utilitarian".
"The Memorial Clock will be enhanced and will receive some renovation work around it," the CEO said.
In addition, a 70m x 70m, floodlit 4G pitch is being created immediately behind the Family Stand, with access to that from the players' 7,000 sq ft state-of-the-art gym and weights-room, believed to be the best of any sports club in Europe.
And the creation of two new, full-size pitches is under way at nearby Pirrie Park.
"The cost of that is the guts of £200,000 so we are putting in top-quality pitches," Logan said. "Our aim is to have European-best standard facilities within a minute and a half of here."
The unprecedented attention to detail in the new stadium followed careful examination of leading sports stadia in Europe and America.
In addition, Ulster consulted with their rugby and soccer counterparts elsewhere to find out what had proved to be the best features of their grounds and what, if they were to start again, they would do differently based on experience.
From the outset, Ulster have engaged with their supporters and stakeholders so that when it is complete, the £22m Ravenhill project will be an all-embracing, self-contained complex of which to be proud.
This is more – much, much more – than an arena in which to watch a rugby match; it is a statement of intent to make the game and all that goes with it accessible, attractive and welcoming to everyone in Ulster's nine counties.
A few weeks ago, Logan said: "The new Ravenhill is a world class stadium and a state-of-the-art home for all of rugby in Ulster."
A few days ago he underlined Ulster's ambitions by adding: "I still think we're closer to the start line than to the finishing line, because a stadium doesn't give you a winning team, it doesn't give you a long-term succession of players, coaches and supporters. A stadium doesn't necessarily give you great rugby in all schools or clubs.
"What a stadium does is give us something that is European-best, that is iconic, that can inspire people. We hold 45-50 matches here a year; only 15-16 of them are the professional game, the rest are for the amateur teams.
"We want to raise the standards in all parts of the game. So while this is great, and we should be pleased with it, we haven't arrived or are (we) close to arriving."