The annual Heineken Ulster Rugby Awards ceremony was held on Thursday evening at the Culloden Hotel where Ulster, Ireland and Lions back rower Stephen Ferris scooped the top accolade of Heineken Personality of the Year.
Stephen Ferris was singled out for his remarkable comeback from injury and subsequent barnstorming performances for Ulster and Ireland this season.
Ferris has been instrumental in Ulster’s success on the field this season and his level of performance is all the more remarkable given his comeback from the potentially career-ending knee injury he sustained last January against Aironi in the Heineken Cup.
Twelve months ago the jury was out as to whether or not he would ever play rugby again, but he remained resolute and determined throughout a slow and often painful recovery period and has emerged faster, fitter and stronger than ever to become a true talisman for the province.
Ulster-born and bred, Ferrus epitomises everything that Ulster Rugby is about. Hugely impressive physically his explosive ball-carrying and supremely aggressive defence are just two of his standout qualities and his three Heineken Cup man-of-the-match Awards this season highlight his importance to the Ulster team.
Over 300 guests gathered to celebrate achievements and development of rugby at all levels with the ceremony, bringing together the cream of the crop in Ulster.
The awards recognise the role that school, youth, club and professional players, as well as their teams and clubs, play in the development of the game in the province.
The other award winners in full were as follows:
Calor Gas Ulster Youth Player of the Year – Russell Blair, Ballymoney RFC
This year was Russell’s second season with the Ulster Youths. He is a big, athletic second row who is outstanding in the lineout and carries the ball well in open play. Due to his dedication this year to training and the development of his skills he has been capped for the Ireland Under-18 Clubs team.
Ulster Branch Schools Player of the Year – James Harrison, Methodist College
James has just completed his third season in the Methodist College front row. His technical ability in the set piece has seen him win interprovincial honours as a prop at both Ulster Under-18 Schools and Ulster Under-19 levels.
He has the ability to play on both sides of the scrum with equal effectiveness but it is his ability with ball in hand that has impressed observers of the schools game this season.
Phoenix Gas Academy Player of the Year – Chris Farrell
The teenager signed off 2011 with his first two Ulster senior caps, turning out against Leinster at the RDS and Munster at Ravenhill.
A powerful centre who hails from Fivemiletown, Ireland Under-20 international Chris came to the game through the Clogher Valley club and is a dangerous runner who always challenges the gainline and has an effective offloading game. One to watch.
URSC Player of the Year – Pedrie Wannenburg
Presented by the Ulster Rugby Supporters Club, this award is given to an Ulster player who has
had an outstanding season with the province.
Pedrie received a magnificent trophy designed by local artist and URSC member Bob Sloan and a Frederique Constant watch supplied by McNeilly’s Jewellers.
Kukri Club of the Year – Malone RFC
While the promotion of the first team to Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League may have grabbed the headlines, it is the success attained throughout the club which has led to Malone RFC being declared the winners of the Kukri Club of the Year for 2012.
Their seconds, in addition to winning Conference League 3, also won the McCrea Cup despite being taken into extra-time by Queen’s University.
At Youths level, the Under-19 and Under-17 teams finished first and second in their respective leagues and both teams reached the finals of the cup competitions with the U-19 side emerging as winners. Congratulations must go to the U-19s on reaching the final of the All-Ireland Championship in which they were narrowly defeated.
Not being content with their promotion in the league, the young first team won the Ulster section of the IRFU Club Seevens competition. Overall, it has been a very good season for a club which has worked hard to produce the talented young teams that have been recognised by this award.
Belfast Telegraph Most Improved Ulster Player of the Year – Paul Marshall
A real livewire around the fringes capable of lifting the tempo of the game, the improvement in Paul’s passing, box-kicking and all-round game management over the last twelve months has really singled him out for this award.
His quick tap penalty leading to his 73rd minute try for Ulster against Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill played no small part in securing their Heineken Cup quarter-final berth.
Dorrington B Faulkner Award sponsored by Perennials – John Wilson
John Wilson is best known for his role as Chairman of the Ulster Schools Committee, a post which he has held for eight years and during that period he carried out his duties in a very proactive and enthusiastic manner.
One of the legacies he leaves as he retires from this role will be the current Schools Cup format which was his initiative and which has been very successful.
In addition, he has championed the support of the IRFU Charitable Trust by schools and his enthusiastic leadership in this area has resulted in many thousands of pounds being donated by the schools to the Charitable Trust.
John has willingly made himself available to sit on various committees and disciplinary hearings. His chairmanship of a working party looking into difficulties experienced in the 2nd XV League lead to the delivery of ‘the Wilson report’ which has been a template for the creation of the current Conferences Leagues.
Prior to his involvement with the Branch John had been both a player and coach at City of Armagh RFC where he still retains his club allegiance.
In his capacity as a coach he also had spells at Cooke, Queen’s University and with the Ulster Juniors as well as the schools where his teaching career took him. We take this opportunity to wish him a happy retirement and thank him for his considerable contribution to rugby in Ulster.
Bank of Ireland Ulster Player of the Year – Chris Henry
Words like ‘consistent’ and ‘dependable’ just do not really seem to do justice to Chris Henry. Over the past twelve months he has been outstanding for Ulster and his defence and ability to slow the ball at the breakdown and win turnovers were perhaps most evident in the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Munster at Thomond Park.
The heart and soul of the Ulster pack, Chris has adapted his style of play to really make the number 7 jersey his own and become one of the best openside flankers in Europe.
Ken Goodall Award for Outstanding Club Player of the Year – Richard Lutton, Belfast Harlequins RFC
Richard returned from a stint playing rugby in New Zealand last season to become an important part of a dominant Belfast Harlequins pack this year.
A strong scrummager who is very effective around the pitch, he also put in some big performances for the Ulster Ravens this year.
Vodafone Young Ulster Player of the Year – Craig Gilroy
No danger of a second season slump for this young man. Last year’s Academy Player of the Year has continued to make an impact with 26 starts from 29 games to date.
Craig’s ability to beat someone one-on-one was perhaps most evident in his memorable try at Thomond Park last month which helped secure Ulster’s passage through to the Heineken Cup semi-finals.