Ulster idol Paddy Wallace calls time on a noble career
Confirmation of Paddy Wallace's retirement means the end of the line for the man who holds the record for Ulster appearances.
Wallace, the most decorated of the province's current playing staff – 2003 Celtic Cup and 2006 Celtic League winner – will be 35 in August.
His standing in Ulster rugby was underlined at the recent official opening of Ravenhill when he was one of the all-time heroes who received a rapturous ovation from the capacity crowd.
Afterwards, in an exclusive interview, he told the Belfast Telegraph: "It was great to be in the company of some Ulster greats I had enjoyed watching growing up and nice to be part of the official opening of the stadium. It's a great memory to take away for me."
There will be no shortage of those for the player who initially played full-back for Ulster before switching to outside-half en route to inside-centre. "There are so many great memories from my time here that there is plenty to choose from," he said.
"The first season is always going to be special. To dream of playing for Ulster all your life and then for it to go so well was unbelievable.
"Winning the Personality of the Year at the Ulster awards dinner and beating Stade Francais at home were real highlights early on.
"As well, certainly winning the Magners League has to be up there. It came at a time when I was looking at my options outside of Ulster, but thanks to injuries I got back in the team for the last few games of the season and we managed to win the trophy."
He takes immense satisfaction at having seen Ulster emerge as genuine Heineken Cup contenders. He made 54 European appearances, the last of which was against Castres last season in Ulster's first win on French soil in the competition. He scored 101 Heineken Cup points, including seven tries, and of course played in the 2012 Heineken Cup final.
Having lived through the lean times when Ulster found it impossible to make an impact on the European stage, he takes pride in the dramatic transformation of recent seasons.
"Going 10 years without getting out of our group in Europe and then the relief of actually achieving it – and going on to do it four times in a row – is something the squad can be really proud of, too," he said.
Wallace has seen huge changes since making his debut against Swansea in 2001.
He recalled: "When I arrived here 15 years ago we were coming off a very bad season and the changes that I've witnessed over the years have been outstanding. We're in a really strong position financially and that has allowed us to bring in some real quality players to go along with the young guys coming through. Ulster Rugby is certainly in good hands going forward."
He is appreciative of the fans who have backed Ulster during his years with the province.
"The supporters always stick by us through thick and thin and hopefully we can return the investment with some silverware," he added.
With 30 international caps, it is hardly surprising that he cites involvement in the 2009 Ireland team that won the Grand Slam (pictured below with Donnacha O'Callaghan, Declan Kidney and Brian O'Driscoll) as his high point in a green jersey.
But even before that he had savoured some great moments – as a member of the Ireland Under-19s who won the World Championship in 1999 and his big role in Ireland A's Churchill Cup campaign in 2006 when he was the fly-half in wins over England Saxons and USA before the New Zealand Maori brought the run to an end.
Despite having suffered a broken leg playing for Ulster, his recovery saw him called up to Ireland's 2003 World Cup squad as a replacement for Johnny Bell.
But it was autumn 2006 before he got his first cap, having entered the fray as a replacement against South Africa. His first start came two weeks later against the Pacific Islands and he marked the occasion with a personal haul of 26 points, five of them for a magnificent try. It might have been the start of a glorious international career, but serious injuries at the wrong moments in tandem with the emergence of Ronan O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy served to stymie him at 10 and 12.
His commitment to Ulster and Ireland has never wavered, with proof of his loyalty to his province coming just a few days ago when he told us: "Hopefully there's still a lot to play for this season."