BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the silver

The numbers of people visiting Northern Ireland has mushroomed in the years since ‘The Troubles’ was still a phrase that merited common usage on this island. 

In 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement, 1.4 million people spent a combined £217m in the north. By 2012, that footfall had doubled to four million and the spend had more than tripled. Most make sure to see Belfast and it isn’t difficult to see why.

If the Harland and Wolff shipyards and the Titanic Experience aren’t your thing, then maybe the black cab tour that takes in the Shankhill and Falls Roads is. Or maybe just a pint in The Crown or afternoon tea in the Merchant Hotel. Belfast really is one of those towns that has something for everyone.

Ask the local cabbies and they’ll tell you that the ground they used to call Ravenhill has been known to attract the odd tourist as well, usually English visitors who have only experienced the place remotely through their TVs and who want to see the place for themselves even if it is a cold and quiet Tuesday morning or Wednesday afternoon.

Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the silver

The word is that at least 1,200 Munster supporters will make that same pilgrimage for tomorrow’s Guinness Pro12 meeting with Ulster when the redeveloped Kingspan Stadium will swell to its 18,000 capacity. Take it from someone who witnessed Ulster defeat Leinster there two weeks ago: the new place is every bit as special.

That Munster will enjoy such backing only serves to highlight the day’s importance. The sight of the Red Army infiltrating rugby grounds throughout Britain, France and beyond has been the norm for 15 years and more now, but this marks something of a new departure for the province and the ‘domestic’ league in general.

Galway and Dublin have always enjoyed the patronage of supporters from the south, but geographical considerations have tended to limit the number of fans from the other three provinces when it came to trips to the northeast corner of the island.

Such numbers, then, are reflective of the stakes that accompany the meeting of the two provinces and which are dealt with elsewhere on these pages, but it won’t be just league positions for which the respective sides will be jostling when Nigel Owens gives the signal to play ball at 2.40pm.

Leinster’s travails in the domestic league this season have stood in marked contrast to their domination of the interpros and Pro12 in recent times given they reached six of the last seven finals, won three of them, and added a trio of Heineken Cups and a Challenge Cup to their booty just for good measure.

The eastern province’s status as top dog on the island of Ireland is therefore, currently open to bidders for the first time since 2009 when a side coached by Michael Cheika and dragged over the line by Rocky Elsom captured the Heineken Cup for the first time with victory against Leiceser in Edinburgh.

Leinster’s berth in the capital city — with all the advantages that it brings including economic and demographic — has been remarked on many a time before now, so too Munster’s difficulties in comparison. The struggle to fill the superbly renovated Thomond Park with its capacity of 26,000 has been the most visible symbol of that.

Ulster Rugby chief executive Shane Logan touched on the difficulties involved in balancing ambition and prudence this week when discussing the desired capacity for their new ground. “I am pleased to say that, whereas a few years ago we wondered if 18,000 would be too much of a capacity, we are now starting to wonder ‘gosh, is that going to be enough?’”

The suspicion is that Ulster have got it just right. They have averaged a crowd of just over 16,000 this season and, like the other three provinces, they have identified obvious areas of potential further growth. If Munster can point to counties like Kerry, Waterford and Limerick, then Ulster have the three counties south of the border.

Logan spoke this week about the increasing footprint they are already recording from supporters hailing from Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal and the ambition to embrace the nationalist half of the community is evident in the club’s plans for the soon-to-be-opened Nevin Spence Centre.

A museum and education centre dedicated to their former player who passed away alongside his father and a brother in a farming accident in 2012, it is Ulster Rugby’s ambition that every child in the nine counties will visit it and Kingspan Stadium before they swap their school ties for civvy street or college.

Yet, as Munster have found and Leinster will notice on the back of a disappointing season, such structures and ambitions, while essential, are insufficient without a team that delivers on the park on a weekly basis. Ulster have not been found wanting what with their Academy conveyor belt and a succession of high-profile foreign signings to complement them though silverware has been elusive.

Make no mistake, they believe their time has come.

All roads lead to Belfast. This weekend, at least.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob


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