Belfast Telegraph

Tigers won't maul Ulster Rugby's Euro bid

By Steven Beacom

The mighty roar went up. Ulster were on the attack, their driving maul pushing into opposition territory.

With every yard gained the volume increased inside the stadium and the more the decibel levels rose the harder the men in white shirts pushed.

The players were inspiring the fans and the fans were inspiring the players.

There was a togetherness between those on the pitch and those in the stands and it proved overwhelming for the visiting side who gave away a penalty.

This was Ravenhill at its raucous best. I hadn't been to the place for a while, but taking in a recent victory in a PRO12 encounter was an enjoyable experience.

I was there as a fan, not a journalist.

Every once in a while it's great to go to a sports event not having to write an instant opinion on it.

Useful too because for future assignments trips like that can provide a better understanding of everything that's happening around you.

What is happening right now at the home of Ulster Rugby is extremely exciting.

The place looks superb and it's not finished yet.

If you haven't been to the new arena, get yourself down there.

You'll have to be quick though if Ulster are playing at Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals because those tickets will sell quicker than shades, suncream and bottled water at the sweltering Australian Open in Melbourne.

The big question, which seems to take on more significance every day, is will Ulster be playing at Ravenhill in the quarter-finals?

After Ulster's match in Belfast last Friday there was almost a sense of disappointment among the crowd because they hadn't collected that 'vital bonus point' against French visitors Montpellier.

I'll digress for a moment here... those bonus points are curious beings, aren't they?

They were introduced to encourage teams to score more tries and play more attacking rugby and, yes, they can lead to many thrills and spills yet sometimes like last week they become more of a talking point than the result itself, which incidentally was 27-16 to Ulster.

It was their fifth win out of five in Europe's premier competition, effectively taking them into the knockout stages.

Remember the days when all hope of that was lost halfway through the group stages?

It's not just off the field that Ulster have come a long way.

Now we wait to see if they can go all the way.

Ulster regulars tell me they'll have to beat Leicester at Welford Road on Saturday to do it.

The reason being that if Ulster tame the Tigers on their own patch, then our boys will finish top of their group and be guaranteed, to use an American phrase, home field advantage in the last eight of the competition.

Defeat and ending up as one of the two best runners-up in the tables will lead to Mark Anscombe's men hitting the road or sky, depending on the draw.

Of course we would all prefer to play a crunch quarter-final tie at Ravenhill, not least because the Ulster players are comfortable in their own surroundings, they have a strong record at home and as mentioned earlier their connection with the supporters can be a magical driving force.

So, let's go to Leicester and make it happen.

If, however, it doesn't, which is possible because the Tigers are a side capable of producing outstanding moments, there must NOT be doom and gloom.

My fear is that a loss in Leicester will have people thinking our chance of European glory for the first time since 1999 will have gone.

That would be ludicrous because while playing at Ravenhill is preferable, it won't be the end of the world if Ulster have to travel.

In recent years in the competition this squad of players have gone to Montpellier and triumphed 25-8 with a magnificent performance, have won impressively in Northampton and defeated Munster at a rocking Thomond Park.

Surely it does men like Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry and their team-mates, and indeed coach Anscombe, a disservice to suggest that they can only be kings in their own castle.

I'd like to think they believe they can be champions in 2014 no matter where their journey takes them.

The Heineken Cup final is at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on May 24.

Mark the date in your diary, no matter what happens at Leicester on Saturday.

Belfast Telegraph


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