Rory Best bows out on a high by taking Ulster's top prize at awards night
The contribution made to Ulster Rugby by retiring skipper Rory Best was acknowledged last night as the 36-year-old was awarded the Heineken Personality of the Year prize at the organisation's awards ceremony.
The black-tie event, which was held at the Crowne Plaza in Shaw's Bridge Belfast, brought together senior pros, young players and volunteers alike to celebrate the game at all levels throughout the province.
Set to bring the curtain down on a 15-year playing career at the World Cup in Japan later this year, Best was the undoubted star of the show, while the side also gave a fond farewell to Darren Cave, who will retire at the end of this season, likely with at least a share of the side's all-time appearance record.
The veteran pair have accumulated over 400 outings for the side and could yet bow out with silverware, with Dan McFarland's men set to meet Glasgow in the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals a week from today.
Their return to the knockouts of both the league and Europe has been a welcome surprise for supporters and two central figures to the dual successes had their super seasons recognised.
The big winner on the night was Stuart McCloskey, who claimed both the Ulster Rugby Supporters' Club Player of the Year and the Bank of Ireland Player of the Year gongs, while Marcell Coetzee took home the Ulster Rugby Writers' Player of the Year award.
In what has been a promising season for the squad's up and coming players, a trio of younger players also took home awards.
Eric O'Sullivan, who has been a revelation, was rewarded with the BT Young Player of the Year prize.
His fellow Banbridge clubman Michael Lowry, another to debut this season, was named Abbey Insurance Academy Player of the Year and the CD Group Ulster A Player of the Year was Aaron Sexton, the Bangor Grammar pupil who excelled during the team's British and Irish Cup campaign while still only 18.
It was not just a night for the professional set-up, though, with a large number of awards highlighting the work done away from the bright lights of Kingspan Stadium.
The Deloitte Ulster Women's Player of the Year was given to Irish international Claire McLaughlin, while there was also recognition for Zara Flack (Enniskillen Royal Grammar School) and Kelly McCormill (Cooke RFC). Queen's University Belfast was named Kukri Sports Club of the Year while Matthew Sands (City of Armagh RFC), Victor Kearney (Donegal Town RFC), Heather Thornton (Rainey Old Boys RFC), Ross Adair (Ballynahinch RFC) and Barney McGonigle were recognised for their contribution to the amateur game.
Roll of honour
Ulster Carpets Youth Player of the Year
Matthew Sands (City of Armagh RFC)
Danske Bank Boys Schools' Player of the Year
Tom Stewart (Belfast Royal Academy)
Danske Bank Girls Schools' Player of the Year
Zara Flack (Enniskillen Royal Grammar School)
SONI Real Rugby Heroes Award (Adult Category)
Victor Kearney (Donegal Town RFC)
Heather Thornton (Rainey Old Boys RFC)
Dorrington B Faulkner Award
Ken Goodall Club Player of the Year
Ross Adair (Ballynahinch RFC)
Kerr's Tyres Referee of the Year
Kukri Sports Club of the Year
Queen's University RFC
Ulster U18 Girls Player of the Year
Kelly McCormill (Cooke RFC)
Abbey Insurance Academy Player of the Year
CDGroup Ulster A Player of the Year
Ulster Rugby Supporters Club (URSC) Player of the Year
Rugby Writers' Player of the Year
BT Young Player of the Year
Deloitte Ulster Women's Player of the Year
Claire McLaughlin (Old Belvedere RFC)
Bank of Ireland Player of the Year
Heineken Ulster Rugby Personality of the Year