| 5.2°C Belfast

Ulster Rugby: Ravenhill's big night had it all except a win


Ulster's  Chris Henry  is tackled by Leinster's Ian Madigan and Leo Cullen during Friday night's RaboDirect Pro 12 match at Ravenhill

Ulster's Chris Henry is tackled by Leinster's Ian Madigan and Leo Cullen during Friday night's RaboDirect Pro 12 match at Ravenhill

Brian Little

Ulster's Chris Henry is tackled by Leinster's Ian Madigan and Leo Cullen during Friday night's RaboDirect Pro 12 match at Ravenhill

Well, we certainly got a game to remember on Ravenhill's special night. And where to even begin with this one?

First and foremost, something has been achieved from another heroic but ultimately losing performance and the play-off place at least brought some reprieve from all the cards being thrown around the place.

And what an effort it was. Reduced to 14 men from the 15th minute, Ulster rolled up their sleeves and gave the ground, the crowd and the departing Johann Muller something appropriate to the occasion that was in it.

But for all that, we had Tom Court being shown red – the second time in three home games that this has happened to Ulster – and then two yellow cards which could, frankly, have also been reds being brandished Leinster's way by English referee Luke Pearce.

But how could it have happened again? And on the night when Ravenhill was formally unveiled with so much razzmatazz. Just plain cruel really.

First we had to deal with Jared Payne's red card that day against Saracens and now Court – on his last appearance for Ulster at Ravenhill and now likely to be his last ever sighting in an Ulster shirt with the ban which will follow – for the tip tackle on Devin Toner.

You just couldn't have scripted it. This was meant to be a night of celebration both on and off the pitch and we got more of this stuff. True, Court had to go but if Ulster are feeling somewhat aggrieved by decisions made by officialdom we've now had three arguably big calls against them – remember the try that wasn't which was given against them by the TMO at Glasgow?

What's more, referee Pearce – his first PRO12 game was certainly memorable – and the TMO could have awarded a first half penalty try and, indeed, a red card after Paddy Jackson was hit horribly high by Rob Kearney with a penalty try allowing Jackson to take the conversion from under the sticks. Instead he missed from out wide.

In the end, that would have drawn the game thanks to Ian Madigan's profligacy from the tee.

And a yellow card for Kearney? And how about Rhys Ruddock's yellow after Jackson was taken out in the air by Zane Kirchner. They could easily have been reds as well.

All of this surely has to open up the debate over the game's laws and the decisions that are being taken by referees. But that's for another time. For now, Ulster can stand tall after an effort which at least brought them something more than the hurt of the Heineken Cup exit.

Jackson needed to show his ability and he did so with so many others also putting their shoulders to the wheel in what was a collectively mighty effort, even if it was badly riddled with basic errors.

Anyway, it felt good to see the ground heaving again and the pre-match atmosphere gave us a pulsating lead-in to the game.

At last, Ravenhill was formally unveiled and what a marvellous stadium we have. It was only fitting that some of the legends were allowed to take a bow after so many memories they have brought to Ulster rugby over the decades.

Yes, it was just right that with all the razzmatazz, there was time to see Syd Millar, Trevor Ringland, Andy Ward and, of course, the marvellous Jack Kyle all there to witness what the old ground has now become.

Indeed, Kyle was there way back in 1948 when Ireland won their first Grand Slam at the ground and how fitting that he gazed out at the game on the last occasion that Ireland's most recent Grand Slam skipper Brian O'Driscoll will ever tog out at Ravenhill.

There was smoke, on-pitch dancing, flags and so much noise but the moment which really brought it all home was when Peter Corry opened up with his version of Stand Up for the Ulstermen as Johann Muller led the side on their final jog around the pitch before they headed to the new changing rooms under the stand.

And then the emotion was ramped up again as Muller led out his two children in this his last game on the Ravenhill turf.

It did feel a bit strange in that we had already seen the ground practically full for the Saracens game. But this was all about getting the dignitaries out and doing things officially.

It was a celebration and rightly so of how a ground that not that long ago was frankly a bit of an embarrassment and which has risen from its previous incarnation to take its place as a sports stadium of stature.

But with all that feel-good factor we had other emotions feeding into the occasion with the gnawing fear that the one point Ulster needed might be beyond them against a Leinster side of such quality.

We needn't have worried and as Muller said afterwards, Ulster are getting used to playing key games with just 14 on the park.

Of course an unexpected window of opportunity had been opened on Thursday night when, quite astonishingly, Zebre managed to beat the Ospreys in the last minutes of their game in Parma.

It was a result which had ramifications way beyond the confines of northern Italy as the win moved Zebre ahead of Treviso and into next season's European territory while, further afield, Munster were safeguarding a top four finish and all that before we even got to Ulster's situation which now, at least, sees Mark Anscombe's squad advance to the semi-finals after next Saturday's trip to Munster.

And who knows what will happen then?

Belfast Telegraph