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Who are Ulster's top players of the past decade?

Tom Court
Tom Court
Nigel Brady

By Staff Reporter

As the decade draws to a close, we're looking back at an eventful 10 years at Kingspan Stadium. How eventful?

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When it all began, Ulster's first game of the 2010s saw then-coach Brian McLaughlin lead his side to a win over Munster in what was then the Magners League at what was then Ravenhill with no member of what was then a match-day 22 still turning out for the province today.

Over the next three weeks we'll be asking you to help us pick our Ulster team of the decade, starting today with the loosehead and hooker positions.

THE LOOSEHEADS

Tom Court

A one-time Olympic hopeful in the shotput, Australian Court came to rugby only in his mid-20s but his rise through the ranks was swift.

Just two years on from first picking up the oval ball at university, he was signed by Ulster in 2006, coming onto their radar thanks to his Limerick-born grandfather. Initially getting reps at tighthead, he switched to the loose once the province signed BJ Botha and made the No.1 jersey his own. He then came to the attention of then Ireland coach Declan Kidney.

He won the first of his 32 Ireland caps in the 2009 Grand Slam campaign, and came on as a blood sub in the Cardiff clincher. The Brisbane native always felt more valued within Ulster however, most notably after unfairly being forced to carry the can for the shambolic 2012 loss to England.

Court actually played some of his best rugby in the white jersey the next season, earning an Ireland recall for the tour of the USA and Canada in the summer of 2013 before getting a shock call to bench for the Lions.

A hugely popular figure with fans and team-mates alike, he left Ulster in 2014 and finished his career with three years at London Irish.

Callum Black

Born in Washington DC and educated at the famous Hartbury College in England, Black had racked up lots of air-miles by the time he landed in Ulster in 2011.

Irish-qualified through his Belfast-born grandfather, he pulled on the green jersey at various under-age levels, playing Under-21s with the likes of Johnny Sexton, Devin Toner and good friends Dan Tuohy and Darren Cave.

Initially used as a back-up to Tom Court, he became a regular starter once the Irish international left for London Irish. He found his opportunities more limited under Les Kiss but had regained his spot and was in a good run of form by the time he departed in the summer of 2018.

Rejoining his old side Worcester, Black remains at the coalface at Sixways where the English side can field a full front-row of former Ulstermen with Niall Annett and Conor Carey also in situ.

Eric O'Sullivan

O'Sullivan has played only 34 times for Ulster to date but there is little doubt that his 2018-19 campaign was one of the very best put in for the province by a loosehead this decade.

A native of Dublin, he found himself on the outside looking in when Leinster Academy places were handed out but got his chance after impressing at Trinity during a time when Ulster's A side was desperately short of bodies in the propping department.

A fine example of seizing an opportunity, O'Sullivan turned that emergency call-up into an Academy contract and, after a first season spent in the unfamiliar confines of Banbridge RFC, he quickly caught the eye of new head coach Dan McFarland in the summer of 2018.

He made his debut in the first game of that next season, becoming a mainstay in the side and saving his best performances for the run to the European quarter-finals. A former back-rower, he's become known for his prodigious work rate and was tipped as a future international by none other than Joe Schmidt this time last year.

THE HOOKERS

Rory Best

In a remarkable feat of longevity, Best began the decade as Ulster's starting hooker and remained so until three months before it concluded.

A true great of the province, few men have arguably ever wielded a greater influence over goings on at Kingspan Stadium.

Naturally durable - to the tune of over 300 pro appearances - a sterling scrummager and real breakdown threat, Best's most sought-after quality was perhaps his leadership.

Captain to begin and (nearly) end the decade, he ceded the role to Johann Muller and then a combination of Rob Herring and Andrew Trimble at various points but there remained the sense that Best set the emotional pitch for the side.

His achievements stretched beyond the white of Ulster and he will go down as Ireland's most decorated captain having led the side to a first pair of wins over the All Blacks, as well as the 2018 Grand Slam and a maiden victory on South African soil.

He fitted in two Lions tours during the decade too before wrapping up his career last week with the Barbarians.

Rob Herring

For all Best's pre-eminence, Ulster have been hugely fortunate to have Herring as a more than able replacement when the recently retired Ireland skipper has been absent.

While it has now been largely accepted that depth wins trophies, there have been many times throughout the decade that the quality of the Cape Town native stuck out like a sore thumb on the Ulster bench and he could have started regularly for many a Champions Cup side.

Good around the park, and strong enough at the breakdown that he made his first Ireland appearance as a makeshift flanker, Herring's best attribute is arguably an engine that regularly sees him make his tackles with unwavering accuracy.

Now finally getting his chance as Ulster's undisputed No.2, it says much for his standing that he was made co-captain for the 2016-17 season and also amassed eight Test caps while essentially a provincial back-up.

Nigel Brady

Just as Best kept Herring in the No.16 jersey for most of the latter half of the decade, he had done similar to Brady for the first half.

A stalwart at Ravenhill who made his debut all the way back in the 2002-03 campaign, Brady would spend 11 seasons representing his native province, racking up a pair of Ireland 'A' caps in the process.

A popular figure within the squad, when it came time to bid farewell before a career swansong with Jeremy Davidson at Aurillac, players pushed to have him granted a last outing at Ravenhill against Cardiff to round out the 2012-13 season.

In a game best remembered for the crowd's show of support to Best after his recent Lions squad snub, it was Brady who led the squad in their traditional end-of-campaign lap of honour round the pitch, bowing out after pulling on the white jersey 119 times.

Replacement hooker throughout the run to the Heineken Cup final in 2012, Brady returned home after his spell in France, first coaching his hometown club Dungannon before taking up the team manager role at Ulster that he still holds today.

To vote for your favourite, simply go to www.belfasttelegraph.com and watch out for the rest of the positions being filled over the coming days

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