Ravenhill's grand stage celebrates 100 years of Ulster magic and memories

Ulster players celebrate in front of the home fans following victory over Stade Francais by 33-27 during the European Cup semi-final at Ravenhill in January 1999. (Photo by Michael Cooper/Allsport)Ulster players celebrate in front of the home fans following victory over Stade Francais by 33-27 during the European Cup semi-final at Ravenhill in January 1999. (Photo by Michael Cooper/Allsport)
Ulster players celebrate in front of the home fans following victory over Stade Francais by 33-27 during the European Cup semi-final at Ravenhill in January 1999. (Photo by Michael Cooper/Allsport)
Ravenhill became part of rugby history on January 12, 1924 as host venue for the first time when Ulster recorded a 14-6 win over derby rivals Leinster.​

The next century saw the famous old ground witness milestone moments such as Ulster draws with the mighty All Blacks twice (1935, 1954) and Ireland winning their only Grand Slam prior to 2009. Ulster defeated Australia’s Grand Slam touring side of 1984 – with a nucleus of that Wallaby squad going on to win the 1991 World Cup.

And with the likes of Willie Anderson, Phil Matthews, Trevor Ringland and Keith Crossan, Ulster would go on to win an unprecedented 10 consecutive inter-provincial titles.

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The BT6 venue has hosted World Cup pool games in 1991 and 1999, the Women’s World Cup final in 2017 and the U19s’ World Cup final in 2007.

The IRFU purchased Ravenhill for £2,300 in 1923 and it was fitting that the two oldest rivals in Irish rugby played the curtain-raiser.

Ulster were captained by Queen’s medical student George V (Vaughan) Stephenson. Stephenson’s Ireland career spanned a decade and when he retired in 1930 his 42 international caps (12 as captain) proved a world record. That landmark would stand for 27 years before another medical student from Queen’s - Jack Kyle - broke it in 1957.

Stephenson also held the Irish try-scoring record with 14 touchdowns, a feat which was finally surpassed by Brendan Mullins 62 years later. Stephenson’s brother Henry was on the wing for Ulster, but George had to go off injured during the first half - not before the two siblings had combined to get the home side’s first try.

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A second try for Ulster from Instonians’ R McClenahan helped the home side to a 14-3 half-time lead. Although they didn’t score in the second half in the bitterly cold conditions, Ulster opened their new home with a victory.

The All Blacks arrived at Ravenhill for the first time on the last day of November in 1935 to face Ulster. Special trains were scheduled to get to fans to Belfast, such was the demand to see New Zealand.

Ulster’s pack boasted future British Lions Robert Alexander and Sammy Walker, both toured South Africa in 1938. Alexander, also capped for his country at cricket, was the only RUC man to play for the Lions. Ulster also fielded England and Lions prop Douglas (known as Joe) Kendrew. He married Elizabeth Harvey from Malin Hall in Co Donegal and turned out to play his club rugby for City of Derry.

The game was ruined by the wind and rain and became a muck-fest, Eric Tindall got an early try for the All Blacks, Ulster replied with a Tom Dunn try and the game finished in a 3-3 draw.

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Ireland’s team of the late 1940s’ early 50s was described as the ‘Golden Generation’ – their first chance to achieve immortality came on March 13, 1948 at Ravenhill. Having defeated France and England, Kyle’s try helped beat Scotland to set up a Grand Slam clash with Wales.

An estimated 30,000 squeezed into Ravenhill, with reports that double that number would have attended had the ground been big enough. Malone’s Jimmy Nelson and Queen’s Billy McKay – both Lions in 1950 – were in the pack along with captain Karl Mullin.

Ireland’s Barney Mullan and Wales’ Bleddyn Williams exchanged tries to leave the sides tied 3-3 at the interval. Prop John Chris Daly (JC) crossed for Ireland in the second half and Kyle’s tactical kicking saw Ireland over the line, sparking scenes of wild celebration at the final whistle.

Ulster were used to beating touring international sides at Ravenhill - Canada, Samoa, Fiji and Italy had all been defeated. But the greatest challenge would be the Australia 1984 side.

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The Wallabies arrived in Belfast with Michael Lynagh as captain while David Campese was sprung from the bench early in the second half. Ulster had six players who started the Triple Crown-winning game against England four months later as well as the likes of Irwin, Phil Rainey, Brian McCall and Willie Duncan.

Ulster led 6-3 at half-time with an Ian Brown penalty and a Rainey drop goal. The Aussies’ only score was a Lynagh penalty. The Wallabies stormed into a 13-6 led, two Brown penalties brought Ulster within a point going in the closing stages. Campese was penalised for a deliberate knock on and up stepped ‘Chipper’ Rainey to knock over the winning kick and gave Ulster a famous 15-13 victory.

Twenty-five years on - January 9, 1999 - still lives long in the memory of Ulster’s epic 33-27 European Cup semi-final win over Stade Francais. Ravenhill was bursting after extra seating was put in to reach the required 20,000 capacity to host a European semi-final.

Simon Mason kicked five penalties and a drop goal, Stephen McKinty got a try. David Humphreys was on target with a drop goal, but it was the Irish out half’s try that galvanised belief that Ulster could not only beat Stade but win the tournament. From a scrum just outside their own 22, Andy Matchett fed Humphreys, he chipped ahead, winger Sheldon Coulter caught the ball and would sprint to halfway before passing to Humphreys, who had the pace to go all the way...