Northern Ireland

Thousands flock to Dublin for Leinster v Ulster clash

Dan Tuohy scoring a try for Ulster against Leinster during the 2012 European final at Twickenham Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Dan Tuohy scoring a try for Ulster against Leinster during the 2012 European final at Twickenham

When Ulster and Leinster met in the 2012 European Champions Cup final, Norman Pollock was centre stage at Twickenham as the fur flew.

But as the two provinces prepare to collide at Dublin's Aviva stadium in the tournament's quarter-final on Saturday, the former Ulster rugby mascot will have to watch on television.

The man known to thousands of Ulster fans as Sparky has work commitments at his east Belfast electrical shop that will prevent him joining the hordes hitting the trail to the home of Ireland rugby.

Despite Ulster being on the wrong end of a 42-14 battering in the 2012 final, Norman still has fond memories of the occasion.

"It was awesome apart from the result, the atmosphere was electric," he said.

"I had never been to Twickenham before, I arrived early and had a pass so that I was able to walk everywhere.

"For the challenges with the other mascot, I had no boots, I just had to kick the ball with my furry feet, whereas the Leinster mascot came prepared and had his boots with him.

"I took off the suit during the match and then put it back on for the end of the game, then I had to run and catch the bus."

Image caption Norman Pollock was the Ulster rugby mascot Sparky for 18 years

Leinster versus Ulster is one of the oldest fixtures in Irish rugby, dating back to the 19th century, and a healthy rivalry has developed between the two provinces both on and off the field.

Norman admits this has even extended to the mascots at times, but always with a view to entertaining the crowd.

"I used to have mock fights with the Leinster mascot, I would hit him a boot up the backside," he added.

"I always made sure I shook his hand at the end of the game though, it was all fun."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The quarter-final is being held at Dublin's Aviva stadium

It is estimated that about 15,000 Ulster supporters will be at the quarter-final, which sold out within hours.

They will use various modes of transport, with one fan, Carrickfergus man Michael Dickson, walking to the match to raise money for injured rugby players.

Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club (URSC) chairman Jonathan Bill said that while Leinster were favourites, it had not dampened the enthusiasm of the aficionados.

The reigning champions Leinster have not lost a knockout game in two years, and have won the European trophy four times.

Ulster's sole triumph in the competition was in 1999 when they beat the French side Colomiers in the final at the old Lansdowne Road ground.

They last defeated Leinster in Dublin six years ago, in the Pro 12 semi-final play-offs.

"To get a sense of our support, we are bringing four buses, for a normal league game we would take one and it would not necessarily be full," Jonathan said.

"That is a gauge of the interest there has been from the Ulster fans.

"You can bet your bottom dollar there will be Ulster fans dressed appropriately for this - they will be a colourful presence.

"There are solicitors by day who are face-painted by night for games like this.

"I don't think this game has been as high-profile as some of the previous European Cup quarter-finals involving Ulster, because so many think Leinster will win.

"I think Ulster fans are happy for it to be under the radar, there has been a sense of exploration with new players and a new coach."

Image caption Jonathan Bill is chairman of the Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club

Jonathan hailed the progress Ulster have made since Dan McFarland joined as head coach last August and the accomplishment of emerging from their European Champions Cup group.

"We were the minnows in the group stage, it was a great achievement to win at the Scarlets and Leicester, let alone beat Racing 92 at home," he added.

He said he believed Ulster had a "puncher's chance" of success, and the inclusion of key forwards Iain Henderson and Marty Moore in the starting line-up was "crucial".

"To beat Leinster would be pretty sensational," he said.

"There are a number of ex-Leinster players in our team like Nick Timoney, Marty Moore and John Cooney who have points to prove."

Another Ulster rugby supporter, Laura Gallagher, also thinks the inclusion of several former Leinster players in the Ulster panel provides added spice.

The season ticket holder of 11 years will travel to the game by car from Eglinton in County Londonderry with friends.

"I have only missed one game at home and that was because I was in hospital," she said.

"I once signed myself out of hospital so I could go to an away game against Northampton in the European Cup, when I was in for kidney stones.

"We won and Ulster got a bonus point"

Image copyright Laura Gallagher
Image caption Laura Gallagher has been an Ulster rugby season ticket holder for 11 seasons

Laura says if Ulster are to win they have to have a "bit more belief in themselves".

"I was there a few years ago when Ulster beat Leinster at the RDS, that was some day," she said.

"I have also been down to Dublin a few times for games against Leinster where we have driven to the game and on the way back it was not until Newry before we started talking to each other again, as we were so disappointed.

"If one player is to make a difference it has to be John Cooney, he has so much pride and passion."

An Ulster fan zone is being set up in the Horse Show House pub in Dublin's Ballsbridge area on Saturday, a location familiar to many Leinster supporters.

"The Ulster fans will be at a well-known Leinster fan bar, we have had AGMs there in the past, as well as table quizzes and raffles," Official Leinster Supporters' Club representative Eugene Canavan said.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Ulster have played Leinster on many occasions, with the first fixture taking place in the 19th century

Eugene said more than 30,000 Leinster fans were due to attend the game and that they were again being urged to embrace the "sea of blue" initiative.

"Fans turn out and line the streets on the route of the Leinster team bus on the way to the stadium," he said.

"It grew out of Bilbao where the European Cup final was staged last year, it was described by the players as being like a sea of blue and we now try to do it at every game we can.

"Leinster's head coach Leo Cullen has said it boosts the team, he sees the fans as an integral part of the machine that is Leinster rugby."

The Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club has members from more than 15 different countries and Eugene said there was also an international contingent within the Leinster support.

"I am going to the game with five other season ticket holders, one of them is from Seattle and another is from San Diego, there is an English guy as well," he added.

"The two guys from the US married two Irish women and now live in County Wicklow and North County Dublin - they have converted to Leinster."

Image copyright Eugene Canavan
Image caption Leinster head coach Leo Cullen with Eugene Canavan from the Official Leinster Supporters' Club

Eugene said he was not taking a Leinster victory for granted and acknowledged "Ulster are a vastly improving team".

Leinster go into the game on the back of a 28-11 defeat to Edinburgh, with the Scottish team taking on Irish province Munster in another European Champions Cup quarter-final on Saturday.

"If I had to bet on it, I would back Leinster to win by five or six points against Ulster, but I would not be arrogant about it, it will be a serious game of rugby," he said.

Eugene added that the Leinster supporters were looking forward to welcoming the Ulster supporters, whatever the outcome.

"The Ulster fans go out of their way to welcome us at Ravenhill and we like to reciprocate that," he said.

"We will have a pint with the Ulster fans regardless of the way the result turns out."

Leinster v Ulster kicks off at 17:45 GMT on Saturday and will be live on BBC Radio Ulster.

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