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Friday 28 July 2017

Lansdowne conversion scores highly with the rugby faithful

Michael McHale

THEY took their places, ready for the day organisers had been planning for months.

At around midday on Saturday, scores of stewards gathered together for a run-down of their duties before 35,000 people would make their way to the new Aviva Stadium on its first match day.

They would not be the ones who would be running out on to the new pitch to do battle, but they still got the pep-talk. They knew there was a lot at stake.

And as fans entered the long-awaited venue, they didn't disappoint.

Armed with 115 stewards' phones, 4,000 data points, 150 CCTV cameras and 1,150 fire detection devices, they came prepared for any eventuality.

It was clear from early Saturday afternoon that the stewards' knowledge of the colossal construction would come in handy for spectators getting their first taste of the new Lansdowne Road stadium.

With puzzled expressions, they showed their tickets to the workers in yellow vests, hoping they would guide them on their way through the, at first, complex structure.

But as all systems were go there wasn't a hitch in sight.

Many fans used the spare few minutes before the match to admire the structure of 4,251 polycarbonate panels that provide for its 19,000 square metre roof. With the exception of a few stragglers, all were seated by the 2.30pm kick-off.

For the €410m stadium's first match, The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) took a leaf straight out of the GAA's book.

True

An All-Ireland match south of the Liffey? It seems too good, or strange, to be true. But that's just what happened.

And these IRFU folks don't do things by halves. It was truly an all-island event, with a young Leinster-Ulster selection taking on the new kids from both Connacht and Munster in an effort to show off the stars of the future.

As the spectators entered the stadium, yellow billboards around the site had already written the reviews.

"History is about to kick off" proclaimed one. "A stadium to take on the world" said another. "Welcome to the edge of your seat" was the poster in fans' view as they went through the turnstiles.

Well, the management never said they were modest.

"We're looking for the all the knobs and whistles," said Dubliner Katherine Lawlor when asked what she was expecting. "And no vuvuzelas, no foghorns, thank God -- we saw on the IRFU website they've already been banned."

Indeed, the zero-tolerance approach to vuvuzelas left one patron fuming when his offending instrument was confiscated by stadium security within moments of it being produced.

"Once it's got the intimacy of the old ground, I'll be happy," said Galwayman Brian Walsh. "It's the old home, just new furniture."

Inside thousands of seats remained empty. Despite 45,000 tickets being sold at a cut-price €10 each, many stayed away. The stadium was well short of its 51,700 capacity with just 35,115 seats full.

And then, with 20 minutes left before kick-off, the heavens opened. It just wasn't looking like the Aviva's day.

But as the skies cleared and referee Alain Rolland got the game under way, the atmosphere was building -- no more so than when, after four minutes and 30 seconds, Leinster-Ulster's Craig Gilroy nabbed the pristine pitch's first ever try.

As the crowd erupted the venue's built-in natural surround sound system came into its own with the noise weaving across the stands.

There were plenty more roars where that came from, but as the game transformed from a competitive fixture to little more than training session for a far superior Leinster-Ulster side, the volume began to drop. With 10 tries and nine conversions under their belts, Leinster-Ulster finished 68-0 victors.

As the final whistle blew the reviews were in. Despite cheering for the losing side, it was a thumbs-up from Deirdre Leonard from Limerick, who now lives in Manchester.

"I've been to Twickenham, Croke Park, the old Lansdowne and loads of other places, but this is probably the best," she said, to the agreement of her children Matthew (11) and Sorcha (9). "The view is just amazing, and it isn't just one area, the whole stadium is well built."

But her brother John had just one criticism -- well, apart from the final score. "I'm waiting to see what it'll be like when there's a full crowd. It'll be great if we could get the Lansdowne roar back."

Organisers were equally happy, but aware of a few glitches still to iron out.

"We were delighted with the turnout," an IRFU spokesman said. "There were 45,000 tickets in circulation, but we expected there to be a drop-off given it's a bank holiday weekend.

"But everything from an operational and media aspect went as well as we hoped. There will obviously be some fine-tuning for the future, but there's no major issue to address."

Next up is the meeting of Manchester United and a select team from the League of Ireland on Wednesday night, set to take place under the stadium's 3,000 lux floodlighting system. Wayne Rooney and co are in for a treat.

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