Ulster Rugby have revealed the winners of the 2021/22 Heineken Ulster Rugby Awards.
In a season that saw the return to full activity in the domestic game following the Covid-19 pandemic, and a busy calendar for the elite level of the game, Ulster were pleased to have fifteen award categories this year.
Ulster Rugby Chief Executive Jonny Petrie commented: “I’d like to extend my congratulations to all the winners and nominees for what has been a very positive season for our clubs and players at both the grassroots and professional level.
“I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in the game across Ulster in getting rugby back in full swing this year.
“These efforts have not gone unnoticed and I’m very grateful to all of the volunteers and staff for their commitment to the game right across the province.”
The awards will be distributed to the winners in due course.
Bank of Ireland Ulster Rugby Personality of the Year: Ashleigh Orchard
Back-line flyer Ashleigh Orchard (formerly Baxter) made her long-awaited return to rugby this season for both club and province after a lengthy injury.
The 30-year-old has garnered a huge amount of experience at the highest level, making an impressive 87 appearances for the Ireland Sevens team in the World Series. She also represented Ireland 15s throughout her career, including at the Women’s Rugby World Cups in 2014 and 2017.
This season she has been part of the coaching team for the Ulster age-grade Sevens squads, inspiring the next generation of Ulster and Ireland players.
She has not stopped there in sharing her wealth of knowledge and will join the Ulster Women’s coaching team for the 2022/23 season. She will also be taking up a player coach role at her club, Cooke RFC in the Energia All-Ireland League, giving back to the game she has played for the last decade.
Heineken Men’s Player of the Year: James Hume
Centre James Hume has received the majority of votes from Ulster Rugby supporters to collect his second accolade in the Heineken Ulster Rugby Awards.
Hume was directly involved in four tries (one try and three assists) in the United Rugby Championship quarter-final victory over Munster earlier this month, equalling Leinster’s Jordan Larmour. No other player has been involved in more tries in a single URC game this season.
He caught the eye of Ireland head coach Andy Farrell – making his Ireland debut against the USA in July 2021 – and had his first Guinness Six Nations appearance against Wales this year. His consistent performances saw him included in the Ireland squad for their current tour of New Zealand.
Deloitte Women’s Player of the Year: Aishling O’Connell
Prop Aishling O’Connell clinched the majority of votes from Ulster Rugby supporters to be crowned the Deloitte Women’s Player of the Year, seeing off a strong list of contenders.
The 32-year-old was consistently prominent in Ulster’s Vodafone Women’s Interprovincial Championship campaign in the early sseason, starting and playing a key role in all three games.
A strong ball carrier in the loose, and a formidable force in the set piece, O’Connell has always led by example as Cooke’s captain in the Energia All-Ireland League.
URSC Player of the Year: Michael Lowry
EPCR European Player of the Year nominee, Michael Lowry, has racked up points for the province in an outstanding season in both the United Rugby Championship and Heineken Champions Cup. He has been selected by the Ulster Rugby Supporters Club as their Player of the Year.
In a season in which he has repeatedly been named among the top players across both competitions, including in the metres made and defenders beaten categories, Lowry also made a try-scoring Ireland debut in this year’s Guinness Six Nations against Italy.
Rugby Writers’ Player of the Year: James Hume
23-year-old centre James Hume has continued to impress since winning last season’s Openreach Young Player of the Year accolade, claiming the Ulster Rugby Writers’ Player of the Year award for the 2021-22 season.
Possessing a knack for making clean breaks and beating defenders, he is equally adept at shutting down the opposition with his quick line speed and ferocious tackling.
Members of the media commented on his exceptional performances and development this season, as well as his passion and drive representing the province.
Openreach Young Player of the Year: Ethan McIlroy
Despite only being 21 years of age, Ethan McIlroy has been an integral part of Ulster’s exciting young back-line this season, playing 21 games for the Ulstermen and starting all bar one of those.
The back-three specialist possesses a lethal step and is a potent attacker, as well as being an excellent reader of the game in defence. In a busy season, McIlroy made 1074 metres, 20 clean breaks and scored five tries across the United Rugby Championship and Heineken Champions Cup.
Deloitte Young Women’s Player of the Year: Jorja Battishill
Jorja Battishill has gone from strength-to-strength over the past few years. Her dedication and drive have led to her selection on the international stage with the Ireland Under-18 Women’s 15s squad.
She has grown hugely over the past six months as a player and a person. She has become a real leader and has developed her athletic profile markedly over the last season.
Jorja will move to study at Gloucester University and continue her rugby journey while in England.
Kukri Sports Club of the Year: Queen’s University RFC
Queen’s University have enjoyed huge success in the 2021/22 season, with both the Men’s 1st XV and Women’s 1st XV winning the blue riband Bank of Ireland Senior Cup and Deloitte Junior Cup competitions respectively.
The Men’s 3rd XV also claimed the Provincial East 1 and Provincial Regional Elite titles, and their 4th Men’s side won the Regional East 2 competition. The university also clinched the IURU Under-20 Men’s Conroy Cup in a fantastic season for the club.
Ken Goodall Club Player of the Year: David Whitten
Queen’s University captain David Whitten led the Belfast side to the top of Energia All-Ireland League Division 2A, winning 15 games out of 18 this season. They were narrowly beaten in the promotion play-offs by Buccaneers, but Whitten and his team put that disappointment behind them in impressive fashion to clinch the Bank of Ireland Senior Cup for a record 24th time in the competition’s history.
In a successful season for the versatile forward, he also collected the Energia All-Ireland League Division 2A Player of the Year award last month, in recognition of his ball-carrying and outstanding work-rate.
Dorrington B. Faulkner (Services to Rugby) Award: Anne Scott, Inishowen RFC Club President
Anne Scott and Inishowen RFC have a long history dating back as far as the 1970s when she supported her late husband Stuart, who played for Ulster’s most northerly club. Hailing from the Lindsay family in Ballyclare, rugby was always in her blood.
She then played a vital role in the mini section of the club when her son, now a senior player, started out at Under-8 level. She has since carried out every job within the club and is known as the go-to woman, working tirelessly as club President.
From taking registration on training nights, to catering for the teams on a Saturday, from organising meetings and fundraising to supporting every team at each age grade, whether at home or away, Anne welcomes all visiting teams with the renowned Inishowen hospitality.
The contribution she has made to the club and Ulster Rugby has led to her well-deserved recognition in the form of the Dorrington B. Faulkner award.
Referee of the Year: Chris Busby
Chris Busby from Ballyclare saw off strong competition to claim the Referee of the Year accolade for the third time in five years.
Busby has represented the USRFR and IRFU, officiating in the United Rugby Championship, Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup competitions this season with a calm presence and strong communication skills.
He also marked a fantastic season with his assistant referee debut in the Guinness Six Nations this year.
Deloitte Ulster Under-18 Girls Player of the Year: Sadhbh McGrath
Sadhbh McGrath impressed coaches from the outset of her rugby pathway. As a GAA player, she brought athleticism, physicality, and a tactical understanding of team sports.
As a person, she brings an infectious personality, positivity, and a desire to learn and improve.
Her willingness to try a positional change saw her stand out not just in the Ulster Under-18 team, but across the four provinces, resulting in her being selected in the Ireland Under-18 Women’s squad for the inaugural U-18 Women’s Six Nations Festival this season.
Ulster Carpets Boys Youth Player of the Year: Ethan Graham
Full-back Ethan Graham had an excellent season representing Ulster Under-18 Clubs & Schools in the Interprovincial campaign.
His notable performances were rewarded and recognised in his selection for the Ireland U-18 Clubs team against Italy in October. He recently capped off a superb 2021/22 season by lining out for Ulster ‘A’ against Munster last month.
Danske Bank Girls Schools Player of the Year: Sophie Barrett
Co-captain of Erne Integrated alongside fellow nominee Moya Hill, Sophie Barrett led Erne to Danske Bank Ulster Girls Schools Senior Cup glory this season.
With her previous involvement in the Ulster Under-18 squad, Sophie brought experience and was a positive role model for her team, especially after her recent involvement in the Ireland U-18 squad for their U-18 Six Nations festival.
Her determination, physicality and ambition led to her selection for the Danske Bank Girls Schools Player of the Year award.
Danske Bank Boys Schools Player of the Year: Joe Hopes
Campbell College second row Joe Hopes was a consistent, stand-out performer for Campbell College this season in helping them reach the Danske Bank Ulster Boys Schools Senior Cup final in March.
His impressive displays at lock have been rewarded with recent selection for the Ireland Under-18 Schools squad, where he started all three games at the U-18 Men’s Six Nations Festival.