Tony Ward: Brilliant Ulster standing up to every test
Published 28/04/2015 | 02:30
To the Titanic Experience Belfast can now add the Kingspan Experience. What has been achieved at Ulster in recent years is quite extraordinary.
I loved playing at the old Ravenhill, as did many of my contemporaries, and I love watching games at the revamped ground. The switch to Friday night rugby has become central to the sporting and social scene in Belfast.
From all over the province and beyond, the White Knights travel in their numbers to 'stand up for the Ulster men'.
It is an enthralling experience. If you like your sport raw and uncompromising then I urge you get along.
While clearly intimidating for any opposition team, the welcome for visiting fans is as warm as you will encounter anywhere.
The support for the home team is unconditional but the friendliness and banter beyond the white lines is second to none.
The new stadium is close as it gets to the prototype rugby arena. It is incredibly user-friendly. Everything about it smacks of sensible planning.
But one of the main reasons why it works is the manner in which it has married the old with the new. Franklin's Gardens in Northampton, Welford Road in Leicester and Kingsholm in Gloucester have all evolved along similar community lines but Kingspan-Ravenhill outsmarts them all.
On the field, Ulster have been invoking the spirit of '99 for the best part of 16 years. They have come close too, losing out to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final of 2012.
Their most recent piece of silverware came courtesy of the old-style Celtic League first-past-the-post system in 2006 when they pipped Leinster by a point; their great rivals beat them to the title in the revamped grand final of 2013.
There is still a way to go in this year's Pro12 competition but following the back-to-back wins over Connacht and Leinster, if Ulster can complete the Irish Grand Slam when entertaining Munster on May 8, then with the final set for Belfast anything is possible.
A home semi-final must be the aim for these northern stars, although with Glasgow in Scotstoun the final hurdle of the regular season, the odds favour the Warriors and Munster for home advantage in the last four. Needless to say, the Munster match will be massive for both teams.
But back to last Friday and another substantial winning performance from Ulster that strongly hinted at exciting times ahead.
Leinster hit the ground running while Ulster were slow out of the blocks following the two-week break. But early appearances deceived as a ten-point deficit with as many minutes gone was turned into a 16-point home win by way of 26 unanswered points.
The scoreline might not have been fully reflective of Leinster's efforts but the better team, playing the more intelligent rugby with far greater efficiency, definitely won the game.
With Les Kiss on the way in November, Ulster has another pragmatic and inspirational figure joining the march. On this evidence, he may have a few more of his future charges involved in the six-week extravaganza preceding his arrival.
Iain Henderson must surely be in the frame for a World Cup starting spot - and I say that bearing in mind the quality of Peter O'Mahony/Sean O'Brien/Jamie Heaslip (not to mention Jordi Murphy) who are in situ in the Ireland back-row.
Henderson's man-of-the-match performance when wearing No 6 on Friday provided further evidence (if such were needed) that the void left by Stephen Ferris has already been filled. Henderson is an awesome talent with a Heaslip-like work ethic to match.
Chris Henry too is back. He offers a different dimension - more Nigel Carr - to Ulster and Ireland in terms of back-row balance.
He, like Henderson, is in serious World Cup contention despite only being a couple of games into his comeback.
Dan Tuohy's overall demeanour and trademark physicality also signalled a man on a mission, while Paddy Jackson looks a potential understudy No 10 to Jonathan Sexton come September.
Further out, Craig Gilroy is back to his riveting, free-running, pirouetting best. How he consistently bemuses defenders with that trademark swivel is beyond me.
Mention too must be made of Stuart McCloskey who made a significant ball-carrying impact in the final half-hour after his arrival for Darren Cave.
Piece it all together and it makes for exciting times for Ulster despite a challenging run-in with Munster home and Glasgow away.
And here again I would emphasise the relevance of the new EPCR qualification system to Pro12 rugby.
Glasgow, Ulster, Munster and the Ospreys have qualified for the last four but no one knows whether it will be Scotstoun, Kingspan, Thomond Park or Liberty Stadium for the semi-finals.
I suspect this one will go down to the wire.
The sixth place (with Connacht faltering in the final stretch) looks a shoot-out between Edinburgh, Scarlets and (perish the thought) Leinster.
Likewise Treviso and Zebre for the Italian slot in the Champions Cup. The cynic in me suggests 'who cares?' because the Italian presence in Europe, not to mention the more mundane Pro12 League, is bordering on the ridiculous in this increasingly professionalised age.
No more than World Rugby or EPCR have I got a quick fix for this Italian job, but for sure Houston we have a problem. . .