A revamped Ravenhill stadium welcomed thousands of roaring fans last night, as officials and VIPs marked the official opening of Ulster rugby’s new and improved home.
Ahead of the match against Leinster last night, the First Minister was among those attending a ceremony to formally declare the expanded ground open, following a multi-million pound construction project which has drastically expanded its capacity.
Previously able to hold just over 11,000, it can now cater for a maximum of 18,000 thanks to the programme to create three new stands, all with the help of more than £16m in funding from the Executive.
One of those at the stadium yesterday was NI Conservatives co-chairman Trevor Ringland, who also used to play for Ulster.
Speaking from behind one of the stands last night, just as the match was due to get under way, he said: “It’s always a fantastic atmosphere, and its even more special tonight” – something he said was accentuated by the fact two key players, Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll and Ulster captain Johann Muller, playing their last matches at the ground.
Asked to pick a stand-out improvement at Ravenhill, he said simply: “It’s a totally new stadium. It’s a massive improvement; it’s just a fantastic asset.”
The official opening coincided with the cutting of the first sod in a wholesale redevelopment of Windsor Park.
Moves are also afoot to upgrade GAA ground Casement Park in west Belfast.
“Belfast is moving into a position where it used to have three of the worst sports grounds in the world,” said Mr Ringland.
“And now it’s going to have three of the best, certainly in these islands, when all the stadiums are finished.”
Despite the political crisis erupting in the wake of the Adams arrest, First Minister Peter Robinson was joined by deputy Martin McGuinness at the stadium.
The DUP leader hailed the fact that tragic Ulster player Nevin Spence – killed in a farming accident in 2012 along with two others – is being remembered with an educational centre bearing his name.
“This centre will ensure that the stadium will continue to make a positive contribution to the community long after the final phase is complete,” said Mr Robinson.
Work on Windsor Park will begin next week, and will ultimately see capacity grow from 14,000 to 18,000.
Speaking at the stadium yesterday afternoon, sports minister Caral Ni Chuilin said: “This is a great day for local sport and the completed stadium will herald in a new era for Windsor Park and soccer in the north”.