“I THINK IT’S fantastic.
“It’s a big change since I was last here; it’s sort of unrecognisable. But it just shows where Ulster are looking to go.”
Having made his first ever senior score for Ulster a winning one, it’s fair to say that most people will not have quite enjoyed opening night at the redeveloped Ravenhill as much as Ian Porter did.
The scrum-half is back on the northern province’s books after a year focused on his engineering studies, but he at least had company in Friday night’s win over Leinster. Out-half James McKinney was Porter’s regular half-back partner at Queen’s University and after playing 80 minutes on his return from Rotherham Titans, the number 10 was among the positive aspects Mark Anscombe could take from a fractious, if entertaining, “hit-out”.
Belfast’s famous old rugby ground may be less than 75% completed with two JCBs parked where the blueprints say ‘Main Stand’, but for its regular inhabitants it appears to be business as usual.
Officially, 10,500 spaces were taken for a pre-season friendly in which Ulster trotted out 29 players. And while that figure seems a conveniently round number, there were certainly not many empty seats on view in either the new Memorial End (which will house the Nevin Spence Centre) or the Aquinas End from which the players now run out.
Indeed, having been hushed by an early 13-0 Leinster advantage, there were echoes of the Ravenhill of old when first Jared Payne and then Nick Williams barrelled over at the tail end of the first half. Typical of Ulster under Anscombe: maximum gains from minimal time in control of a match.
“You can’t read too much into it,” says the Kiwi coach. “It’s for both teams to give some guys a hit-out. From a coaching point of view, it allows us to have a bit more understanding of who has started the season sharper than others.”
“You can’t be over critical: it was a bit slippery out there, though the track is in superb condition – nice luscious grass. It wasn’t easy against good opposition and they made us work for it.
“We hung in there [when] we went down 13-0, but I was really pleased with the way that first half team took control the last quarter of an hour. We did well, played some good rugby and scored a couple of good tries and then it took a bit of time for the second half team to get going, but they closed the game down well and put the pressure on at crucial times.”
Anscombe will learn more about the shape of his team when he takes on Heineken Cup opponents Leicester next Saturday and says many of the side he expects to face the Dragons in week one of the Pro12 will be given at least an hour to ramp up their level of match fitness.
Among those hoping to make both the trips to Welford Road and Rodney Parade will be the club captain and a sextet of Irish internationals.
Most notably, after a season which ended with the vexing situation of the centre suffering concussion in three successive games, Luke Marshall returned on Friday as one of the men without a number and is fit and available for the start to Ulster’s season. Anscombe is hopeful that Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Tom Court and Andrew Trimble will join him as the province look to continue their winning streak in Wales.
Big name signings may be in short supply, but Ulster have retained some leading lights – John Afoa is expected to return to full fitness in time for the Heineken Cup and few sides would be harmed by the reappearance of Ruan Pienaar.
Little wonder then, that Ian Porter won’t get too caught up in talk of breaking into the team. Ulster will try to focus on taking matters week by week this year and, for now, Porter is the man who managed to spoil Jimmy Gopperth’s Leinster debut.
“It was very nice,” the 25-year-old says of the moment he gave the Aquinas end cause to unleash a roar. “It’s the first time I’ve scored for Ulster. hopefully there’ll be a few more, but I’ll not just get ahead of myself just yet.”