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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 May 2006, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
Celtic kings
By Richard Petrie
BBC Sport

Ulster were celebrating on Friday night after picking up the Celtic League title in dramatic fashion at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea.
Mark McCall
Mark McCall has a talented bunch of players

It was their third major piece of silverware following on from their European Cup success in 1999 and the now defunct Celtic Cup three years ago.

The success was an achievement for coaching staff and players alike, with many having doubted the wisdom of appointing Mark McCall to succeed Alan Solomons after a relatively disappointing season last time out.

McCall and assistant Allen Clarke have proved the doubters wrong with consistent team selection, good team preparation and astute tactics.

Much credit must also go to defence coach Neil Kelly and fitness and conditioning guru Phil Morrow, who have played a highly significant role in reversing the fortunes of the Irish province.

Sound defence has been the hallmark of this successful squad while the ability of the team to play at a high tempo for the full 80 minutes has set them apart from many of their opponents.

The emergence of so much young talent in the ranks, particularly the meteoric rise of supremely gifted centre Andrew Trimble, has been a significant factor in the team's success.

Tommy Bowe, Matt McCullough, Bryan Young, Roger Wilson, Neil Best, Stephen Ferris and Rory Best and Andy Maxwell bear testimony to the province's ability to nurture the careers of talented youngsters.

Young, Ferris and Maxwell will all look back on the 2005/06 season as the year they came of age in the professional ranks.

Maxwell started the season out in the cold but his form in the Heineken Cup win at Treviso made him a natural first choice thereafter.

Justin Harrison
Justin Harrison was Ulster's player of the year

Justin Harrison, named as Ulster's player of the year, has been a central figure throughout and his experience, ability and competitive spirit have made him arguably the province's best ever overseas signing.

Scrum-half Isaac Boss has been another pivotal figure, recovering after a slightly shaky start to dislodge the reliable Kieran Campbell.

Players like David Humphreys, Paul Steinmetz and Bryn Cunningham have been their usual influential selves, contributing steady and sometimes spectacular displays when most needed.

Another vital component of the Ulster season has been the comparative lack of injuries, with the exception of the occasionally absent Steinmetz and the recent serious ankle injury sustained by skipper Simon Best.

The panel also benefited from the fact that they were not deprived of as many key figures as neighbours Munster and Leinster during the Six Nations Championship.

The squad proved equal to the challenge of maintaining their focus and form during the lengthy gaps between matches during the season and carved out crucial victories when they were most needed.

A narrow away win over Munster on 3 December confirmed their credentials as authentic title contenders and a victory at Edinburgh on 17 February, at a stage when the Scots were challenging for honours themselves, were defining moments.

Fortress Ravenhill

The one blot on an otherwise fine landscape was another failure to qualify for the quarter-final stages of the Heineken Cup.

Once again, Ulster proved their ability to compete with the best in Europe on their day but were unable to string together the necessary run of results, although a classy Biarritz side were always going to be favourites to progress from a keenly contested group.

The home form of the new Celtic champions improved this time out, with 'Fortress Ravenhill' being re-established after a number of surprising defeats last season, most notably when fixtures were moved to Saturdays from their traditional Friday night slot.

Away form saw a wholesale improvement with the ability to win close matches against difficult opponents on the road marking a major change from previous seasons.

Players and coaching staff have been quick to praise the 'extra man' effect generated by the Belfast crowd and there can be little doubt that the fervency of the home support has played a significant part in the side's championship winning year.

With so many young players approaching the prime of their careers, the prospect of Humphreys offering his undivided attention free of international commitments and a number of new faces already signed up, the future looks bright for the Ulstermen.



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