It’s shaping up to be another one of those great nights in Ravenhill when Pool toppers Biarritz Olympique come face to face, not just with the Ulster team, but with their passionate supporters as well
The time was, that when Irish sides travelled to France it was a question of home advantag, o null point’ but let’s try and keep it decent. And now, the shoe is on the other foot and French sides travel here full of trepidation. Where once they’d expect nothing less than two points, nowadays the only thing they can be sure of is that the reception they get, on the field from the team and the supporters surrounding, will be icier than the climatic conditions.
Biarritz Olympique will remember their December evening in Belfast for some time to come. And for all the talk of the intimadatory nature of French grounds, it’s unlikely the visitors from the Cote Basque will have experienced anything like the bear-pit that is Ravenhill.
In recent years Michael Reid and his hard working staff have turned this ground into a pulsating arena on Friday nights where the passionate home support has often helped carry their side over the line against the best opposition.
It’s easy to remember the great nights. Toulouse in the quarter-final in 98/99, Stade in the semi, occasions when it was a privilege to be among the packed-to-the rafters support.
After their marvellous victory in the final that season, Ulster dropped into a trough, perhaps understandably, given that it has happened to most European Cup winners. Last year their form improved and they were unlucky not to make the quarter-finals, an uncharacteristic display away to Wasps proving their downfall.
This year people were ready to write them off when they lost in Northampton, but whoa the pony, Ulster are not done yet. And they re-iterated that in Glasgow when guts, determination and no small degree of skill, saw them come from behind, then survive a late onslaught, to reach the Celtic League semi-final.
Getting there wasn’t as important as how they got there. It was a display that will have boosted their confidence and Biarritz will be the first to have the dubious pleasure of seeing that first-hand.
The omens for Ulster are good in that Gary Longwell is back to take his place in the second-row with another great lock, Jeremy Davidson.
Ryan Constable’s zipping pace will be seen from the start and the inspirational Andy Ward is back from injury to lend his own unique blend of courage and charisma to the gripping stage that Ravenhill has become.
Biarritz Olympique haven’t been beaten yet and as the away side the pressure, shouldn’t be on them. But it is, because they can’t even begin to imagine what lies ahead of them in Ravenhill. Another great night in store and the re-kindling of Ulster’s Heineken Cup ambitions.
1995/96. v Begles-Bordeaux (home), lost 29-16.
1996/97. v Brive (home), lost 17-6.
1998/99. v Toulouse (away), lost 39-3; v Toulouse (home), won 29-24; v Toulouse (qtr-fnl,home), won 15-13; v Stade Francais (s-fnl, home), won 33-27; v Colomiers (fnl, Lansdowne Road), won 21-6.
1999/00. v Bourgoin (away), lost 26-12; v Bourgoin (home), lost 36-27. 2000/01. v Toulouse (away), drew 35-35; v Toulouse(home), lost 29-25.
2001/02. v Stade Francais (away), lost 4-11; v Stade Francais (home), won 19-16.
Ulster: B Cunningham; J Topping, R Constable, J Bell, S Young; D Humphreys, N Doak; J Fitzpatrick, M Sexton, R Kempson; G Longwell, J Davidson; W Brosnihan, A Ward (capt), N McMillan.
Replacements: S Best, P Shields, M Blair, T McWhirter, K Campbell, A Larkin, S Coulter.
Biarritz: N Brusque; P Bernat-Salles, M Stcherbina, J Isaac, P Bidabe; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvilli; E Menieu, JM Gonzalez, D Avril; D Couzinet, JP Versailles; S Betsen, T Lievremont, C Milheres.
Replacements: J Campo, D Minassian, O Roumat, T Soucaze, L Mazas, G Bousses, M Etcheverria.
Referee: T Spreadbury (England).