Grounds for excitement at Ravenhill

Shane Logan and David Humphreys are overseeing a radical overhaul of Ulster rugby and its future ambitions — the physical manifestation of which is a €40m refit of Ravenhill, writes Rod Nawn.

Tomorrow evening, Ulster will meet Saracens in yet another Heineken Cup quarter-final at Ravenhill.

The province has hurried in the last decade to match the successes — on and off the field — which it has envied and admired in Leinster and in Munster. As testament to its ambition, the stadium which welcomes the English Premiership leaders is unrecognisable from the forbidding ground of old.

For the first time, the estimated €40m ground will be completely open to the public, 18,000 of whom snapped up the tickets for this tie in less than an hour. It’s another Ravenhill sell-out, not an unusual state of affairs in the past decade as consistent success in the Celtic, Magners and Pro12 leagues has sparked a dramatic change of fortunes in Europe.

And this sparkling, state-of-the-art stadium, which has clearly been the product of acute business acumen being applied to excellent creative design and a view to the long term, will host a game which now has an environment to equal the hyperbole of anticipation.

Ulster has team for which its new home is a good fit. There’s quality and energy in the squad under the charge of coach Mark Anscombe, a potentially rich blend of talented homegrown players and carefully-selected overseas imports.

Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson, Iain Henderson, Declan Fitzpatrick, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave and, Craig Gilroy are all Ireland internationals, and Tom Court and Dan Tuohy started life in the southern hemisphere but have been capped.

Under IRFU guidelines, having Irish-qualified players — and Jared Payne, the gifted Kiwi tipped as a possible replacement for Brian O’Driscoll becomes eligible to don green this autumn — gives provinces extra room for manoeuvre.

David Humphreys was perhaps the most significant signing the province made after he retired as a player in 2008.

The intelligence and agility of mind which marked his glittering career for Ulster and for Ireland was shrewdly secured by former Ulster chief executive Michael Reid who knew his very presence would be an attractive recruitment tool.

Initially somewhat reluctant to embrace an administrative role — Humphreys has many interests outside the game and he had the option of a lustrous legal career to rejoin — he now is Director of Rugby, known to some players simply as ‘the top man’.

He was always clear about the direction Ulster had to take. Ravenhill provided full houses but capitalising on expanded revenue sources and thus developing the squad needed a new stadium, the best training facilities and sports science and medical back-up.

Ulster’s Academy had provided a steady stream of quality players from its base at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown where, first Gary Longwell, and now Allen Clarke, identified and developed young talent. Bowe, Ferris, Trimble, Henderson, Jackson, Cave, Luke Marshall and Olding are just a few who’ve established themselves in the top rank.

Humphreys, in one of his first important decisions in 2009, took what many thought a gamble after the departure as coach of Matt Williams in deciding that, of all the candidates he’d identified there was on his Belfast doorstep, a man who’d been a skills coach with Ireland but was perhaps best-known for his success at schoolboy and Ulster club level.

Brian McLaughlin’s tenure, by any standards, was a huge success, culminating in a 2012 Heineken European Cup final appearance, the first since Ulster had ripped up the script in 1999 with its triumph in the embryonic tournament with a pool of local players experiencing professional sport for the first time.

By then a splendid new stand with private boxes, hospitality lounges and purpose-built broadcast facilities had been built along the length of the famous old terracing.

When Shane Logan took over as chief executive of Ulster Rugby in January 2010, he made headlines by stating that his and the province’s aim and strategy was to be a world-class club.

An experienced businessman with an international reputation, Logan’s words were uttered with confidence.

The organisation of Ulster’s administration was dramatically overhauled, responsibilities delegated, departments with specific business goals charged to realise the twin ambitions of commercial and sporting success.

To some who perhaps had been slow to embrace such radical change, fearing the domestic club roots of the sport would be flattened, the pace was breathtaking. Ravenhill became a continuing construction site, new stands taking seed at either end of the ground, and this weekend the ultra-modern main grandstand will be packed, the hulking but much-loved concrete monolith of old consigned to history.

The old seats and other longstanding features were sold off to individuals and, like Cliftonville’s soccer home at Solitude, to clubs at a different stage of their own development.

Funding such a complete transformation of the arena — which has everything the spectator might want as well as accommodating key indoor training, medical, administrative and a host of other facilities for the team and its staff — was principally drawn from the Northern Ireland-devolved government’s commitment to improving stadia across all sports.

The huge investment from DCAL, the department responsible for sport in the North, has been bolstered by support from the IRFU in Dublin and from the myriad of partnerships and sponsorships which would water the eyes of the hardworking and committed amateur rugby administrations of just 20 years ago.

The bars and souvenir shops are convenient; the food outlets are well-situated, the toilet blocks — with the whole family and all genders in mind — a complete contrast to those of yesterday.

And to demonstrate that rugby’s heart has not been at all lost in the race to stadia modernism, a lasting memorial to the wondrously-gifted centre Nevin Spence, — who died three summers ago in a tragic accident on the family farm, is a museum and educational centre which bears his name.

Ulster, the rugby team, kept on its successful course. Players that fans could previously only wonder at from afar were drafted in, because the financial ‘clout’ was increasing, but their quality and number owed much to Humphreys’ own drawing power.

Many who have signed up in Belfast tell of how Humphreys sold them on his dream for the province.

The Springbok legend Ruan Pienaar — the fulcrum of the current team — has settled so well that he’s signed on for a further two years, despite lucrative overtures from France. His countryman and World Cup winner Johann Muller has captained the side in recent years.

John Afoa, like Muller a World Cup winner who takes his leave of Ulster at the end of this season, has been a fans’ favourite and has lived up to his reputation as a technically supreme tight-head prop forward.

Humphreys has scoured the world constantly for talent, and if some recent overseas-based arrivals haven’t yet established big reputations, few doubt their quality. And, in line with his forward-thinking approach to Ulster and to Ireland’s future, Humphreys’ new recruits will be Irish-qualified.

He’s gone about his role in charge of all rugby matters with the precision and imagination of his playing days, and when he makes a decision, he assures himself it is right for the province and for his players and staff.

“Whenever I walk away from Ulster I want to do it knowing that I have left a very strong legacy. If we win the Heineken Cup this year that will be magnificent but we also want to make sure that in 10 or 20 years we are watching an Ulster team that are competing at the top of the pile. I don’t have regrets about trying to achieve that,” added Humphreys in 2012.

That mantra remains true today, and one important task for Irish rugby is to ensure he remains a predominant figure.

Kiwi Anscombe is about to start his third year as coach this summer, a Pro12 final appearance against Leinster achieved last season, and Heineken Cup pool qualification and RaboDirect Pro12 contention almost a given for Ulster now.

Jonny Bell and Neil Doak, former players of note now carving out impressive reputations as assistants to Anscombe, have also put pen to paper for further stints as part of the management. Both remain approachable as ever, but to winning characters they have added a demand for excellence from themselves and the squad, which augurs well.

A former Ulster captain and coach, Mark McCall, returns to an unfamiliar Ravenhill just three weeks after sending out his Saracens team in front of a world record club crowd of nearly 84,000 at Wembley.

Still a proud Ulster man, he has continued to grow his reputation as a Director of Rugby at the lavishly-funded English club, and his use of expensively-acquired players has demonstrated why, despite his diminutive stature, he was such an intelligent force in Ireland’s midfield before injury cruelly cut short his career.

Ironically he was club captain the very year of that 1999 European Cup-winning Ulster side which, though entering folklore.

Stephen Ferris, (left) that terrifyingly talented flanker who was an Ireland and Lion pick in his early 20s, will have more reason than most for thanking Ulster’s successful transition. Injury has blighted his career, but in 2012 it looked truly ominous when this most physical of forwards was helped off Ravenhill.

Ulster and the IRFU decided, with Humphreys again playing a major role, to extend his central contract over the last year, though knowing looks amongst fans feared they’d seen the last of their favourite son.

Three weeks ago, a huge roar greeted his appearance from the bench and then his thunderous tackle which announced his return, his no-holding-back style uncompromised.

Ulster against Saracens, a Heineken Cup quarter-final tie which is filled with top-class players — and now Ravenhill provides a fitting stage for such an encounter.

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