Belfast Telegraph

The modern era of Ulster Rugby is even better than the good old days

Steven Beacom

The All Blacks are playing Ireland in Dublin this weekend. There's something special about the New Zealand team, isn't there?

They are the Brazil of rugby, bringing with them a mystical aura everywhere they go.

You see those shirts and the world class players filling them and you can't help but be excited.

They've also got the Haka.

I remember the first time I saw it in the flesh.

Ravenhill, November 21, 1989. You may have been there. Everybody in Ulster appeared to be.

The place was jam-packed. There must have been over 20,000 spectators, most of them standing on the terraces. Health and Safety? You've got to be kidding!

A group of us, all teenagers high on life, had travelled up on a bus from Enniskillen to watch the match.

We were cheering on Ulster, but were really there to see the All Blacks.

I recall being disappointed that big Kiwi stars like John Gallagher, Grant Fox and Sean Fitzpatrick weren't playing.

A few days before they'd been in the New Zealand side that defeated Ireland at Lansdowne Road when that great Irish skipper Willie Anderson and his team-mates stood together on the halfway line, throwing down their own challenge as the visitors did the Haka.

My memory may be a little blurred, but I'm pretty sure Ulster, led by David Irwin, did the same at Ravenhill. One thing's for sure, the atmosphere inside the ground that night was electric.

Ulster had top players like Anderson, Phil Matthews, Denis McBride and Keith Crossan, but what amounted to a second-string Kiwi side were still too strong winning 21-3.

Franco Botica, who would later go on to star in rugby league, and Zinzan Brooke (pictured) were outstanding.

Games like Ulster v New Zealand don't happen anymore. Rugby has changed dramatically since then and so has Ravenhill.

I happened to be driving past the stadium the other day. What an impressive arena it is set to become.

By the time work on the ground is finished the capacity will be 18,000 and they'll not all be squeezed in like sardines the way we were 24 years ago.

While Ireland play New Zealand on Sunday, Ulster, without their Irish internationals, are back in Pro 12 action in Belfast tomorrow night.

Just like in 1989, we are fortunate to be able to watch some excellent performers in the modern era... homegrown heroes like Rory Best, Chris Henry, Darren Cave, Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe inspire while major foreign influences such as the excellent Ruan Pienaar, skipper Johann Muller and Nick Williams add to the magical mix, capably managed by Mark Anscombe.

Ulster's Director of Rugby David Humphreys has played a huge role in assembling and keeping so much talent here.

He deserves credit for that.

Any time I've spoken to or interviewed Humphreys, just like when he was number 10 for Ulster and Ireland, I've always felt he's a man who likes to be in complete control.

In the wrong hands that attitude can cause problems, but Ulster are fortunate to have this classy player turned accomplished administrator having such a major say in the province's present and future.

Those days playing New Zealand at Ravenhill were fun, but Ulster Rugby is now in a better place than it's ever been. A trophy at the end of this season would strengthen the brand even more.

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