Ulster win the Celtic League, May 2006
Ulster Rugby participates in the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect PRO12, and provides the biggest regular supporter numbers for a true 'sport for all' in Northern Ireland. Ulster Rugby, with it's playing and administrative staff based at Ravenhill in Belfast, is the only sport running a full-time professional team based in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Branch, also based at Ravenhill, is reponsible for the game development structure across the Province.
In the amateur Rugby Union era, Ulster's players trained and competed in their spare time and the team enjoyed considerable success, throughout the 1980's in particular. They regularly played international touring sides from the all over the world such as New Zealand, Australia and Italy. The Interprovincial Championship was viewed as a significant achievement in Irish rugby at the time, with Ulster competing against Munster, Connacht and Leinster for the title.
In the early 80's a number of Ulster players such as Colin Patterson, David Irwin, Trevor Ringland and Keith Crossan were selected for the Ireland squad which went on to win the Triple Crown. During the 1984-85 season, Ulster won the Interprovincial Championship for the first time since 1976. The Ulster side strengthened and in the same season they defeated Australia at Ravenhill. Current Ulster Rugby Doctor, David Irwin, captained the side to a 15-13 win- Ulster's first victory over a major touring side with a now legendary performance.
The season signalled the start of Ulster's most successful period in their history and with the David Irwin/Willie Anderson axis controlling things on the field, Ulster either won or shared the interprovincial championship every season until the beginning of the professional era (more than any other Irish province)
The form of the Ulster players was recognised when in 1987 eight Ulster players were selected to compete with Ireland in the Rugby World Cup where they progressed to the quarter finals.
Harry Williams was Ulster's first coach in the professional era and presided over what is arguably the club's greatest achievement when the side lifted the European Cup in January 1999, defeating French side Colomiers, 21 - 6 in the final at Lansdowne Road. Just eight of the players in the squad during that season were playing rugby professionally with the majority of the squad "part-timers", combining a rugby career with a day job.
From 2001-04 Ulster Rugby was coached by Alan Solomons, a former Assistant Coach of the Springboks and Head Coach at The Stormers and Western Province in his native South Africa. It was during this time that Ulster Rugby completely embraced the professional era with a roster of full-time players.
Solomons coached Ulster to a three year unbeaten home record in the Heineken Cup and in the 2003-04 season Ulster finished second in very a closely contested Celtic League Championship. Without doubt two of his greatest moments with Ulster included the winning of the Celtic Cup on 20th December 2003, defeating Edinburgh 27 - 21 at Murrayfield, and less than a month later, defeating English Premiership giants Leicester Tigers 33 - 0 in the Heineken Cup at Ravenhill.
In July 2004, Mark McCall, himself a member of Ulster's European Cup winning side in 1999, took over the reins as Ulster Rugby Head Coach with European Cup team-mate Allen Clarke as his Assistant and in May 2006, Ulster Rugby were crowned Celtic League champions. In a league season which saw the team win 14, lose 5 and draw 1 match, the competition went down to the wire and Ulster lifted the trophy after defeating The Ospreys 19 - 17 at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea.
Following the Celtic League success, the 2006-7 season failed to live up to expectations with Ulster dropping to 6th in the Magners League with a disappointing Heineken Cup campaign and in November 2007, Coach Mark McCall resigned. Assistant coach Steve Williams stepped in as Caretaker Coach until new Head Coach Matt Williams was appointed in February 2008. However, depsite a difficult season, Ulster ended the 2007-08 season on a high by qualifying for the Heineken Cup.
Williams coached Ulster through the 2008-09 season but parted company with Ulster Rugby at the end of that season. Ulster went back to their roots, installing a home-grown management set-up with former Irish Skills Coach Brian McLaughlin at the helm. Ulster and Irish legend David Humphreys took on the role of Operations Director, while Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak joined the set-up as Assistant Coaches.
In 2010/11, World Cup winning Springboks Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar joined the Province and played a key role as Ulster reached the Heineken Cup quarter finals for the first time since 1999, losing 23-13 to eventual finalists Northampton Saints. The same season, Ulster reached the Magners League play-offs but were defeated by Leinster, who went on beat the Saints in the Heineken Cup final. Jeremy Davidson departed at the end of the season to take up a Head Coach position in France.
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