Belfast Telegraph

Sports fans united in their support for Ulster

The Ulster rugby team will have widespread support today in its bid to beat Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup semi-final. However, that support will include people from other sports as well.

At one time sport in Ulster reflected some of the major cultural divisions in our society. Most Protestants supported rugby, while most Catholics followed gaelic games.

Nowadays people are much more willing to give their support to individuals and teams because of their sporting achievements, irrespective of their backgrounds.

In many of the major sports, the outstanding achievements speak for themselves. These include, for example the successes of people like golfers Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke who are everybody's heroes because of their remarkable abilities.

In earlier years Mary Peters' gold medal at the Munich Olympics was welcomed by everybody, as was Barry McGuigan's world title in boxing. Such immense achievements transcended all barriers.

In more recent times the Irish team's Grand Slam was hailed by all local rugby fans and by people who had no direct interest in the sport. At such times of success no-one bothers about cultural or other backgrounds.

In Irish rugby and gaelic there has been progress on and off the field. It was particularly important that the GAA made Croke Park available to the Irish rugby team while the new Aviva Stadium was being built.

This symbolised that some of the best Irish rugby players have come from GAA backgrounds, and there are important contacts between the sports at local level.

There is also great support among Northern sports fans of all backgrounds when an Ulster side reaches a Croke Park final, with celebrations heard far and wide.

It would be an overstatement to conclude that sport is currently "the great unifier" on its own, but the growing recognition and respect among participants and supporters of some of our main sports is evidence of a community maturity in an age of ever-greater sporting achievements. In that sense, sport itself is the winner.

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