And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart
I’m indebted to yer mon from Cypress Avenue and Ireland’s greatest living songwriter for the literary encapsulation of yesterday’s sun kissed afternoon at Ravenhill.
As I remarked to Ron the Spark, these are the days you live for, that make last Friday evening’s capitulation to Glasgow bearable. These are the days that evoke memories of a golden afternoon in 1999 when a man called Humphreys and a team called Ulster staged a car crash against a team of Parisienne rugby tyros.
Yesterday the teams where the same and there was even a fella called Humphreys orchestrating the Ulster side and as chance would have it, the younger brother of the instigator of yesteryears car crash. Sadly Stade, as so many of the French teams, have not lost their ability to be rattled, no matter how cosmopolitan the make-up of the team list.
They still retain that deep rooted Gallic malice that surfaces when they are seriously under pressure. Yesterday was one of those days when there was not so much a car crash as a serial running over of several big names reducing them to spoilt brats. In between there was some serious rugby, much of it played by Ulster who as their coach remarked, want to be known for playing a decent game in seminal conditions.
Yesterday was one of those days when the long slanting rays of a lukewarm winter sun splayed down the length of Ravenhill’s verdant pastures and straight into the faces of the home team. As anyone who drives a car in late December days will know, the low sun can cause havoc with eyes, almost blinding you and makes the sun visor above the steering wheel a most apt if simple piece of equipment. Ulster’s back three playing without sun visors or shades fielded the ball admirably as did Stade’s full back, the Scot Hugo Southwell who was last man in defence and playing the first half with the winter sun on his back.
He may not have had the sun to contend with in that first half but he did have the crowd baying, and in some cases braying, every time the ball arced into the steely blue winter sky to test his resolve. Southwell caught almost everything thrown at him but could do nothing when Ulster moved the ball from deep in the first half and one of his compatriots playing on the Ulster side set up the first try.
If the build up was somewhat inauspicious, for me at least, with the beer tent looking a little threadbare of human life early on and many preferring to stand in the winter sun, I was reinvigorated by the time I had reached planet Terrace. You could smell the atmosphere as you walked along the concrete promenade in front of the new stand and see the sea of sunny disposition radiating from so much human life.
It is what gives you that spine tingling feeling sense of déjà vu, in the preamble to an event, like when we played and thrashed Toulouse here a few years back or Leicester and of course that memorable moment in time in 1999. Each time the winter sun has kissed our visage as it radiated down the pitch from left to right and yesterday, despite the looming presence of the hulking new stand, the sun still swept in round the corners illuminating every blade of grass.
Ron the Spark is still getting used to Terrace life at Ravenhill but even for me, a regular at Ravenhill for many a season, still have the capacity to be surprised by the warmth of the craic and joie de vivre that sweeps the Terraces on these occasions. There is always the person or persons beside you who you’ve never met in this life or even the last one who will chat away as if a long lost pal.
So it was yesterday that our companion turned out to have a second home in the Perpignan region and sometimes took in matches there. I was wondering what French he knew and if he could give me the French for ‘damn’ as I watched a Stade move break down with a badly aimed pass going straight into touch behind the supporting runner. It was symptomatic of Stade’s afternoon that and it wasn’t long before sporadic skirmishes took place off the ball and Danny De Vito lookalike Roncero, the Stade captain, was having a rather irritating dialogue with Mr. Pearson. It culminated in him theatrically, if suspiciously, looking like he was on the point of manhandling the referee at the end of the game when Mr. Pearson was surrounded by a number of unhappy Stade players.
Next week’s ref will need balls of steel, if he is to control this game which yesterday threatened to boil over and indeed there is unfinished business between the teams with Dupuy now looking like he may get a long suspension for not once, but twice going for Ferris’s face and the eye area as gouging is now known. A somewhat watered down term for a dangerous act. As always the drama unfolded amidst a game of rugby with the crowded Terraces alternatively indulging in audience participation as if a party of schoolchildren at a pantomime, there to boo the baddy, (in this instance the Danny ‘Roncero’ De Vito) and the full knowledge of the game was also brought to bear by the crowd who recognise a command performance when they see one.
Aside from Man of the Game, Humphrey Beardy, other figures stood out in a committed team performance. For me Declan Fitzpatrick was an unsung hero, whose lack of scrummaging power was negated by his play round the pitch, though for the life of me why he fancies himself as a winger I don’t know. It can be puzzling when you see the front row and Declan in particular standing ready to run the ball as if he was Simon Danielli with a cushion up his jumper. Mercifully the ball didn’t come his way as he had about 70 metres to run to the line. Ferris of course is getting a lot of headlines, partly for running about 60 metres with the odd hand off thrown in, but the back row in general outplayed their opponents with Chris Henry atoning for a lacklustre display against Glasgow.
Isaac Boss showed, one dodgy pass apart, just why he is our best option in these games as he bestrides his territory like a terrier. Although we conceded penalties yesterday there was none of the heart in mouths attention to the game that usually accompanies Caldwell when he stations himself like a nervous water buffalo at the side of a ruck. Instead the boiler room performed heroically stoking the fires and fuelling the engine room with power and graft.
Days like these would not be the same without something to laugh at and as usual the second barrier crowd unwittingly gave us a gem whilst chanting give us a ‘u’, an ‘l,’an ‘s’ and so on. Our companion remarked that it was just as well it wasn’t Munchengladbach they were supporting. Or Borussia Dortmund I added, thinking that 6 hours after the game they’d still be chanting, give us a ‘U’, an ‘N’ a ‘D’, a ‘D’, another ‘D’ and whaddya get, Borussi …
After surviving the by now regular conspicuous log jam of human flotsam headed for the Mount Merrion gates we made our way on foot towards the Rosie having helped Holywood Mike & son perform his flag tying ceremony whilst exiting Ravenhill. We accompanied Mike up through the Cregagh estate and I learned that delightfully, to coin Dewi’s word of the moment, that Mike cheerfully acknowledges his lack of rugby knowledge.
Bakkies Botha ‘ for second row,’ I barked, quoting a rumour from the UAFC and Mike glanced distressed towards his son who was right on the money and gasped at the thought of the great man coming to play for us. Later Mike ably demonstrated why he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the volume control of a TV as he attempted to turn up the noise on the Cardiff Toulouse match and got a soap programme instead. His son after many entreaties to Mike finally restored order and the match to the screen just as the Larne contingent arrived through the door of the Rosie.
It’s disappointing when celebrities don’t live up to their reputation and imagine my chagrin when the Raven arrived with the full metal smile in place and looking for all the world like he’d just landed a 747 in Rosetta Avenue. Perhaps it was the sight of an entire match minus the Raven’s nemesis Ryan Caldwell that made him so happy and of course Ulster won as an added bonus. Whatever, the normally Ragin’ Raven was as placated as a lamb!!!
I managed to introduce myself to Flat top and Glynn Commando and promised not to repeat a word of our conversation under the official discreetsy Act. As such I cannot say too much other than introduce a couple of ‘facts’ related to Glynn Commando.
1. Glynn – is a gawd forsaken, windswept suburb of Larne.
2. Commando – is a term for someone refraining from wearing underpants.
I can reveal Dewi uttered the following key words, as the Rosie being a noisy establishment meant I didn’t catch everything he said. The key words are in no particular order:
Empire, week, next, development, expand
We will just have to wait and see what exactly develops here!
Meanwhile I retired from the Rosie a happy bunny having eschewed a visit to Belfast’s Continental Market (have you heard the roo burgers make you behave like Skippy!), in favour of watching Leinster.
Finally I wound up watching our beloved Ulster lay waste to a bad tempered Stade Francais team. There is no doubt next week’s return leg will be a robust affair and Ulster will have to learn how to handle such tempestuous games if they are to advance their education in European rugby.
Munster learned how to survive in the bear pit after a few travails and Ulster will have to do the same. Stade will turn up determined for revenge and there is no doubt Ulster will have to turn up as well.
What I like about this Ulster side is some their ‘youngsters’ show little fear and have an appetite for the more unsavoury side of rugby warfare, not I hasten to add in dishing it out but in coping with it. They will need the fearless factor to enable them to progress, destiny is in their hands.
May the force be with them.
And as BJ Botha might say, ‘hopefully me as well!’