Belfast the winner in Champions Cup belter

With a real positivity in the air, a buzzing night life and wealth of cultural attractions, Belfast is a brilliant place to visit right now, especially if you’re a rugby fan.

Thanks to Heineken Rugby Club, on Saturday December 10th we travelled to Belfast to watch Ulster take on Clermont Auvergne in a mouth-watering European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 5 encounter. Heineken Rugby Club (HRC) member Jade Hamilton welcomed Connacht super fan and fellow HRC member Padraig Kelly to Belfast for a day of history, culture, craic and, as it happened, some thrilling rugby!

Heineken Rugby Club members Padraig Kelly and Jade Hamilton

Heineken Rugby Club members Padraig Kelly and Jade Hamilton

Ulster Rugby, in a province with a proud rugby tradition and history, is an emblem of a modern Belfast. For those travelling to Belfast,expect a compact and cosmopolitan city that is very much forging its own identity.

Belfast can offer a range of fascinating activities for anyone visiting the city for rugby reasons. Combine its fizzing nightlife, super cool dining scene and some of the very best pubs anywhere on the island of Ireland, and you have the perfect rugby destination.

The video below shows Jade's and Padraig's rugby day out in Belfast.

BELFAST

Activities

Titanic Belfast

Having beaten Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, the Las Vegas Strip and Peru’s Machu Picchu to be named “The World’s Leading Tourist Attraction” at the World Travel Awards earlier this month, the iconic exhibition centre can only go from strength to strength.

The story of the world’s then largest cruise ship that went down in the North Atlantic on the 15th of April 1912 has captured the imagination of generations since and the immense exhibition space, dedicated to the ship and Belfast’s maritime history, is a fitting tribute to it.

Titanic Belfast sits on the same location as the Harland and Wolff shipyard where such cruise liners as Olympic and Titanic were constructed. Ship building was an integral part of Belfast life for over 150 years and the men and women that hoisted, hammered, and welded in the iconic shipyard built not only the biggest ships the world had ever seen, but a legacy bequeathed to the city for future generations.

The exhibition is impressive. It captures the industry of ship building, the culture of the workers and the relationship of the ship yard with the city in a modern and energetic way. Real stories of those who worked the yards bring the exhibition to life and real artifacts from the Titanic allow us to peer into history.

The exhibition also allows us to experience the wreck of Titanic in its current state with a 3D tour of the vessels underwater resting place. Worth the trip to Belfast alone, but if you’re there for the rugby, then don’t miss it.

Join Heineken Rugby Club, where rugby meets the world.
Members of the Heineken Rugby Club can avail of exclusive benefits like the chance to win tickets to exclusive VIP rugby events.

· Money off vouchers for Just Eat and Hailo among others
· Entry to competitions to win match tickets
· Access to exclusive Heineken Rugby Club events
· Opportunities to win signed rugby merchandise, signed by rugby legends
· The chance to be at the coin toss before European Rugby Champions Cup matches along with pre match stadium tour

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Black Cab Tour

You just can’t visit Belfast without taking a black cab tour. We piled in with Charlie, a taxi driver who lived through the Troubles and with his own fascinating (and harrowing) story to tell. Jade, a Belfast native had never actually taken a black cab tour, so she was fascinated to see the iconic streets and murals of Belfast, being driven around, and narrated by a fellow native who knew them so well.

The brilliant thing about black cab tours in Belfast is that the drivers themselves are as much a part of the experience. They all have direct experience of darker times in the city and can give you a first-hand account of what it was like for their communities and families in the midst of a time dominated by sectarian violence.

However, that’s all in the past and now the tour takes you around the Belfast streets that, although relatively unchanged in their physical appearance, are completely transformed in the sense of security and social harmony.

There’s so much to see; from the still vividly painted political murals, the Shankill area, the Peace Wall, built to divide the Protestant and Catholic communities, to Crumlin Road Jail and Courthouse and Liberty Hall to name just a few.

The Black Cab tour is an eye-opening and illuminating experience which allows patrons to visualise the troubled history of Belfast and to admire just how far the city has come. Our driver Charlie, a Catholic who is heavily involved with the GAA, tells how rugby, when he was growing up, was not a game anyone in the Catholic community would have had any involvement with. Things are different now. Young Catholic boys and girls support Ulster Rugby and even those that play GAA are happy throwing an oval ball around from time to time. There is much to be gained from cross-community cooperation, and rugby and GAA, working together, are a brilliant example of that.

Belfast was brimming with colourful and boisterous Clermont fans. We bumped into a few at the Peace Line to shake hands and offer our own ‘truce’ ahead of a must-win game for Ulster.

Our Heineken Rugby Club members bump into some Clermont supporters at the Peace Line

The stadium

The Kingspan Stadium

Home to Ulster Rugby and previously known as Ravenhill, the modern Kingspan Stadium is a purpose-built rugby stadium with a capacity for 18,196 fans. Revamped in 2009, and then transformed in 2012-14, it is everything a modern rugby stadium should be. Brilliant facilities and stands shelter you from the cold Belfast wind, yet have you right on top of the action so you can hear the collisions on the pitch.

The iconic clock at the Kingspan Stadium

The iconic clock at the Kingspan Stadium

The Ulster faithful are a passionate bunch and they really get behind their team at Kingspan Stadium. Meet under the clock before the game, get your chips at half time, “Stand Up for the Ulstermen” and enjoy the game.

Getting There
While not too far from the city centre in the Castlereagh area in the south, the Kingspan Stadium is notoriously difficult to get to and from. Of course, there are buses laid on that will take you there in time for the game, but as 18,000 rugby fans leave the stadium, taxis are difficult to find. You can choose to walk 40 minutes back to the centre but if you need a taxi, your only choice is the taxi rank inside the stadium. Queues are long but they do move.

The Back-Stage Stadium Tour

Padraig talks to Heineken Rugby Club member and competition winner John Chambers backstage at the Kingspan Stadium

Padraig talks to Heineken Rugby Club member and competition winner John Chambers backstage at the Kingspan Stadium

John Chambers, who was a lucky competition winner thanks to his Heineken Rugby Club membership, accompanied HRC members Jade and Padraig on a back-stage stadium tour of the Kingspan prior to kick-off. They enjoyed a tour of the training and workout areas which the players use day to day, the stadium concourses and even access to the tunnel, mixed zone, and TV broadcast area. The highlight of the back-stage stadium tour was when the members were present for the coin toss between the two captains Rory Best and Damien Chouly and even got the chance to sit in the dugout as the stadium was filling up and the atmosphere was building.

The Heineken Quarter

Hospitality at the Heineken Quarter

Hospitality at the Heineken Quarter

An area within the stadium just under the stands, The Heineken Quarter provided a buzz with entertainment in the build up to the game. Comedian Shane Todd (aka Mike McGoldrick) provided banter with some of the Ulster players, the highlight being the Heineken Rugby Clubhouse Challenge which saw HRC members team up with their Ulster heroes to win some cracking prizes.

The Game

Ulster 39-32 ASM Clermont Auvergne
This game had everything with free-flowing, heads up rugby and nine tries. It showcased why the European Rugby Champions Cup is re-establishing itself, like the Heineken Cup before it, as one of the best annual sports tournaments in the world.

Ulster fans were tentatively optimistic before kick-off, but when Clermont’s Perceli Yato went over the try line after just 69 seconds, the signs were ominous that the Top 14 big hitters meant business. Ulster didn’t let their heads drop though and they were soon on level terms. Sean Reidy carried hard into the Clermont defence, creating space for Luke Marshall to scythe through on a short ball from Paddy Jackson to score.

The teams then traded blows with Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson combining for a fine try before Clermont answered with Scott Spedding going over in the corner. Jackson was having a great game and showed fine individual skill to gather his own grubber kick and touch down to give Ulster a 22-18 lead at the break.

Ulster came storming out of the traps in the second half. Stuart McCloskey making hard yards in midfield before Marshall added his second try to give Ulster the all-important bonus point. Charles Piutau then showed his speed and strength by going around the long way to score in the corner and put some distance between hosts and visitors.

With so much quality in the Clermont team though, you can never count them out. A lung-busting effort in the last 20 minutes saw them come back with Nick Abendanon getting over. Then Chouly touched down from close range to earn a try-scoring bonus-point, and a further point for getting within seven points. Still, it wasn’t enough to deny Ulster a famous home win, the scoreboard flashing up a 39-32 winning margin for the Ulstermen at Wayne Barnes’ full-time whistle.

After such a thrilling game, both sets of supporters felt energised. Clermont supporters are among the most recognisable in the competition and with two points in the bag, their brass band was belting out the tunes on the Belfast evening air. It didn’t take long for the French fans to turn to a full-throated version of La Marseillaise and the sight of the friendly Clermont and Ulster fans singing together in the stadium after the final whistle will live long in the memory.

The Pub

The Duke of York
Nestled along a narrow-cobbled alleyway in the historic Cathedral Quarter area of Belfast, The Duke of York offers a traditional Belfast welcome to rugby supporters and is the perfect place for a cosy pint of Heineken after the game. We got together with Jade and Padraig in the snug upstairs for a chat about the game, the city of Belfast and how rugby is a symbol of a vibrant and exciting place to visit right now.

The Feed

The Morning Star
This pub is situated in Pottinger’s Entry, which runs between two of the city centre’s busiest thoroughfares. It is one of Belfast’s oldest pubs, dating back as far as 1810, first built as a coaching stop for the Belfast to Dublin post. It has an elegant olde world feel to it with a proper wooden bar and marble floors but its kitchen serves up award-winning food brought to your table by some of the best staff in the city. A great pub with fantastic food, plush surrounds, and friendly, efficient staff. What more could you want!?

Accommodation

The Fitzwilliam Belfast
The Fitzwilliam is centrally located, adjacent to the Grand Opera House, with spacious bedrooms that are well-stocked with coffee machines, playing cards and even chocolates!

You are within a short stroll to just about anywhere you want to be in Belfast city centre. It takes about 40 minutes to walk to the Kingspan Stadium, but on the way back from the game you’ll be close to where all the action is. If in Belfast in December, the Christmas Markets at City Hall are very close by.

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