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How Ulster's Kingspan Stadium became a fortress once more


Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey

Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Guinness PRO14, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 29/11/2019
Ulster vs Scarlets
Ulster's Marcell Coetzee arrives
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Guinness PRO14, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 29/11/2019 Ulster vs Scarlets Ulster's Marcell Coetzee arrives Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey

Neath, Llanelli, Celtic Warriors and Borders, a selection of the teams beaten at Ravenhill during what is Ulster’s longest run of home games unbeaten in the modern era.

If the opposition doesn’t date the feat then the players involved will.

Those on the scoresheet for the first game of that streak in September 2002 were Bryn Cunningham, Neil Doak and Tyrone Howe, the side was captained by Jeremy Davidson and Neil McMillan earned man of the match honours.

A team depleted by Ireland’s World Cup qualifier in deepest, darkest Russia, when the likes of European Cup winners Andy Ward, David Humphreys and Gary Longwell filtered back in, the streak would ultimately reach 21 games and span almost two years before Leinster travelled north and won 25-16 in the first home game following Mark McCall taking over from Alan Solomons as head coach.

In the near two-decades that have passed since, no Ulster side has come closer to matching the mark than Dan McFarland’s current crop, heading into today’s encounter with Bath (3.15pm kick-off) looking to make it 20 without defeat in the friendly confines of BT6.

Since their head coach arrived in the summer of 2018, Ulster have lost only once in what is now known as Kingspan Stadium, that reverse coming at the hands of his old side Connacht in October of that year, the westerners first win in Belfast for 58 years coming after Matty Rea had been red-carded only moments into the second-half.

Nineteen games have come and gone since, the likes of Leinster, Munster, Racing 92 and Clermont all beaten along the way, important of course as racking up victories on your own patch is the bedrock of any successful side. Indeed, the second longest run Ulster have enjoyed since the game went pro only became the longest active streak in Ireland with Munster’s defeat by Edinburgh in Cork in November while Leinster’s own form is comparable with just one defeat in their last 29 in Dublin.

Yet, coming off the back seven losses in the three seasons before McFarland took the job, the improvement has been marked and fans have responded. Having failed to sell out once since Ruan Pienaar’s farewell in 2017, there’s not been a ticket to be had for the past two games and this afternoon’s encounter is heading the same way.
“It is definitely back to the old days of the fortress,” says Alan O’Connor, starting lock this afternoon. “It’s always special here, the past two games were sold-out and this one nearly is, so everyone else seems to think we are doing something special as well. We just have to make sure we keep that going.”

Two of the visible changes made by McFarland to match-days at Kingspan bookend the players’ experience. Among the first things they see when they walk through the gates is a newly installed mural of huskies, a pack mentality evidently key to the culture overhaul he recognised was required upon being handed the reins. Among the last things they see before heading home after the final whistle is the fans, a 15-minute post-match meet and greet now a mandatory staple announced over the PA system after the final whistle.

“It’s all down to the culture that Dan is trying to instil,” says Luke Marshall who, having made his debut in October 2010, can cite a longer association with the jersey than any of his team-mates. “It sounds corny but playing for the badge, playing the province, he’s really pushed that.

“There’s more players here from abroad or from down south and sometimes that would be hard because if we’re honest, someone from the Leinster Academy, coming up here it wasn’t their dream to play for Ulster. So it’s how you install that pride in the shirt and Dan has done really well with that. “(The mural) came from pre-season. We wanted to show that pack, hunting together. Then there’s some other things that mean something included there that are a bit more for the team and some things like the Harland and Wolf cranes that mean something to the province.

“When you go out and meet the fans after, it reminds you of how much it means, especially the younger ones. Maybe in years gone by we would have taken that for granted a bit but that’s one thing Dan emphasises.”
Another point of focus for McFarland has been the side’s warm-up, aiming to ensure a fast start leaves visiting teams feeling even more up against it than when they arrived. Indeed, they haven’t trailed at half-time in any home game this season.

“It’s a lot to do with the warm-up,” says flanker Matty Rea. “Everyone has different things throughout the day that they do to get ready for the game but that’s the first time you’re together as a group.

“Everyone can float about but once you’re out there, the energy that you bring, the intent you bring, it sets the tone. You saw it (against Connacht), we started from the first whistle and there were a couple of big plays in the first five minutes that probably shocked them a little bit. Teams travelling, if you get shocked in the first five minutes, it’s going to be tough for you, we’ve seen that against Leinster, it’s the nature of the game.”

The importance of the fans through the turnstiles is two-fold. The fall in average attendance last season from 2017/18 was cited in the team’s annual report as one of three reasons for a £0.4m deficit in the year ending April 2019, while Kingspan’s atmosphere is often cited as memorably intimidating by new players recalling when they used to play here as visitors, although on at least two occasions during the run lines have been crossed that have led to bans for patrons.

For Will Addison, who arrived from Sale in 2018 but was quickly taken in by the Belfast crowd, the performance of the team and a support that has become increasingly vocal and numerous in recent weeks must be looked upon as symbiotic rather than relied upon as a driving force.

“I was lucky at Sale that it was always a bit of fortress for us at the AJ Bell, but I think the way we won games was more off the back of a bad smell next door,” he says. “The Manchester sewage plant was next door, so we had a bit of a different home field advantage to what we have here.

“Here we have an incredible crowd and incredible buzz. That’s the difference, but you only make it a fortress if you play well at home, and fortunately every week for the last 12 months we’ve always turned up and we’ve put in the performances our fans deserve.

“You get one with the other - the fans don’t win you the game but you need them in the big moments.”

And what of the architect of it all? Well, he’d prefer it wasn’t mentioned.

“Stop talking about the streak,” McFarland half-joked after their latest home victory.

As he has become prone to saying in recent weeks, stadiums don’t win you matches.

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