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The good times will roll again for Ulster

When you put upwards of 350 people, who share a common interest, together in a social setting, it’s reasonable to expect that this will lead to an amicable, upbeat gathering.

Add good food and wine and a dozen awards in recognition of the excellence of a number of those assembled, and there is further cause for optimism. By dint of its nature, such an event is predestined to go well.

Thursday night’s Magners Ulster Rugby Awards Dinner, staged at La Mon Hotel, was a case in point, drawing together people involved with rugby football in some shape or form.

With winners varying in age and experience from Dr Jack Kyle, who made his Ulster debut 65 years ago, through to Ballymena Academy’s Charlie Simpson, star of the March 2010 Northern Bank Schools’ Cup Final played at Ravenhill where, 62 years earlier, Kyle had been the key cog in Ireland’s 1948 Grand Slam-clinching defeat of Wales, certainly it can be said that the event ticked the inclusivity and continuity boxes.

It ticked the audience response box, too, for the genuine warmth of the reaction when it was announced that the Belfast Telegraph had launched the Ulster Rugby Hall of Fame and Jack Kyle was to be the inaugural inductee really said it all.

Those assembled listened intently as the man voted Ireland’s best-ever player and described as “the players’ player” answered MC Jim Neilly’s questions and, in doing so, provided a yardstick against which to measure the modern-day game in comparison to the one in which he shone.

The 1950 tour of Australia and New Zealand, on which he played in all six Tests, lasted six months and the team included three Queen’s University students. The Lions sailed to and from the Southern Hemisphere, with the post-Tour homeward trip taking a month to complete.

That and the interview with Chris Henry when he went forward to collect his third award of the night was the highlight. The demeanour of the affable Ulster back row forward, who deputised as captain when injury sidelined Rory Best, suggested that whilst the rugby of which Jack Kyle was so fine an exponent in the days of amateurism may be no more, the game’s underlying core values and ethos remain intact, the harsh demands of professionalism notwithstanding.

It was a night for old friends to remember and reminisce, reliving past deed, past glories, past failures and past moments of devilment when they were younger men.

The misgivings as to what professionalism has done to the club game in the past 15 years have not disappeared completely, but on Thursday night it was evident that the passage of time has seen much of the former fire go out of that particular debate. There is now an acceptance that, once squeezed out, the toothpaste can not be put back in the tube.

Men like Billy Boles or Willie John McKenzie are never going to feel wholly comfortable about professionalism’s impact on their beloved Dungannon, who showed their support in the form of a full table of Stevenson Park stalwarts.

They realise rugby has changed, even for a club with a history stretching back to 1873 — hence the name Dungannon Football Club — and boasting the status of IRFU founder-members. Acceptance of such reality and an ability to cope with it augur well for the game. And that, coupled with the clear belief that good times lie ahead for Ulster, made it a night of much optimism.

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