Ulster exodus as 40,000 fans march on Dublin


BELFAST WILL be feeling distinctly deserted today as up to 40,000 rugby fans left the North yesterday to cheer on Ulster at this evening’s crunch Heineken Cup semi-final in Dublin.

The mass exodus is one of the largest from the North for a single event and will dwarf rival Edinburgh supporters, about 3,000 of whom are expected to attend the game at Aviva Stadium.

The winners will play either defending champions Leinster or Clermont in the final at Twickenham on May 19th.

Five extra trains laid on from Belfast, each with capacity for 400 fans, are all sold out , while extra coach services were available from all over the North. Scores of rugby clubs, pubs and hotels have organised private buses and traffic is expected to be heavy in the city this afternoon, especially during countdown to the 5.45pm kick-off.

The unprecedented level of support reflects the significance of the fixture for Ulster. The first Irish province to win the European Championship (as it was then called) in 1999, they have failed to repeat the feat, only reaching the quarter-finals last year. It also reflects diehard support for outgoing Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin, whose contract – which Ulster bosses controversially declined to extend – runs out next month.

Retired head teacher and soccer fan Andy McMorran (60) from Belfast explained why he was attending his first rugby match.

“I am going to support McLaughlin,” he said. “The team has trained for the past three years at my former school and the work McLaughlin has done has been amazing. He deserves a medal and it’s an absolute disgrace the way he’s been treated.”

Long-time Ulster and Ireland supporter Dennis Russell (59), from Co Down, said he would be “gutted” if Ulster lost. “I was there in 1999, and to think we’re so close again. Having said that, the team has done tremendously well and McLaughlin has turned things around. I would love to see him take them all the way – how embarrassing would that be for the power that be?”

Ulster are favourites to win, but no one is expecting a walkover, given Edinburgh’s 19-14 win against four-times European champions Toulouse in the quarter-finals.

“It will be a tough game,” said Richard Finlay, press officer for Ulster Rugby Club, “but we have some excellent players today, including Irish internationals Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace and Tom Court.

“Rory Best has captained Ireland and Stephen Ferris was named man of the match against Munster in the quarter-finals. The Ulster captain Johann Muller is a World Cup winner for South Africa, so there’ll be a lot of talent out on the field.”

Ulster will, however, have to do without suspended All Blacks player John Afoa.

As well as being a crunch game, today’s clash will give some of the less experienced Ulster players a chance to impress ahead of the selection for Ireland’s upcoming tour to New Zealand.