Rugby Union: Ulster the real breeding ground

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The Independent Online
THE ROMANTICS love to blarney on about the pride and passion of Munster, but the real power in Irish provincial rugby is located well to the north of Cork and Limerick. Think of Ulster and you think of Jackie Kyle, Mike Gibson, Willie-John McBride and 24 All-Ireland provincial titles, either shared or won outright, since the competition was first introduced in 1946. When you take into account a barren decade between 1957 and 1966, the sheer weight of domestic achievement is all the more remarkable.

Rugby first caught on in Ulster in 1868 as a winter exercise for members of the North of Ireland Cricket Club; within a year, Queen's University, Belfast, was boasting its own side. Ulster were not a founding province of the Irish Rugby Union in 1874 but by 1879 they were part and parcel of the scene.

Ulster's experience in the first three Heineken Cups was unhappy: they lost both pool games in the 1995-96 competition, fared little better the following year, and were even more dismal last season, when Wasps put almost 100 points past them in two outings. This season, though, they have been magnificent, with two victories over Toulouse, the 1996 champions, in the space of seven weeks.

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