The Irish Rugby Football Union Ulster Branch (also known as Ulster Rugby) is one of four branches of the IRFU, and is responsible for rugby union in the Irish province of Ulster, six counties of which are in Northern Ireland and three in the Republic of Ireland. The branch is also responsible for the Ulster team, which plays in national and international competitions.
The branch was founded in 1879. The home ground for the province's team is at Ravenhill in Belfast, and has a capacity of 12,300. In 2004 the Ulster Squad re-located their training base to Newforge Country Club in South Belfast but the side retains its close links to Ravenhill, the spiritual home of Ulster rugby. The Ulster team traditionally played solely as an Irish province but in recent years, since rugby union became a professional sport in 1995, the Ulster team now plays as a professional club.
Ulster rugby has developed and progressed drastically over the past decade. Ulster have many youth teams and also the 'Flybe Ulster Academy' which helps to develop talented young rugby players. The teams which Ulster field each season in various competitions are as follows: Ulster U18s, Ulster Schools (U18 and U19), Ulster U19s, Ulster U20s, Ulster 'A' and of course the full Ulster XV.
In the amateur Rugby Union era Ulster regularly played international touring sides from the southern hemisphere, their most impressive performance coming in the 1983/4 season when they defeated Andrew Slack's "Grand Slam" Wallabies. This, along with Cardiff's victory at Cardiff Arms Park, was the only loss of any kind for the Australians on a tour which saw them defeat Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England.
From 2001-04 the Ulster team was coached by Alan Solomons, a former Assistant Coach of the Springboks and head coach at The Stormers and Western Province in his native South Africa. It was during this time that Ulster rugby fully embraced the professional era.
Alan Solomons coached Ulster to a three year unbeaten home record in the Heineken Cup and in the 2003/04 season Ulster finished second in the Celtic League, only overtaken by Llanelli on the final day of the campaign. Two of Ulster's most impressive achievements in this period were a 33-0 win over English giants Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Cup in January 2004, and winning the inaugural Celtic Cup on the 20th December 2003, beating Edinburgh in a rain-soaked Murrayfield final.
In July 2004, Solomons departed for Northampton Saints and Mark McCall, a former captain of the province and a member of Ulster’s European Cup-winning squad took over as Ulster Rugby head coach with European Cup teammate Allen Clarke as his assistant. Despite an initially poor start to the season the two extended Ulster's unbeaten home record in Europe to four years.
In the 2005-6 season Ulster led the league for most of the season thanks to dominant forward play largely inspired by Australian import Justin Harrison and kiwi born Irish scrum-half Isaac Boss and a rapid maturing of a youthful home-grown three-quarter line. However, inconsistent late form from Ulster combined with a late run from Leinster meant that either of those sides could take the title in the final game of the season. With four minutes to go in Ulster's match against the Ospreys, Leinster's match in Edinburgh finished in a decisive bonus-point victory for the visitors. With Ulster two points behind and the Ospreys dominating territorially, it looked like the cup would go to Dublin. David Humphreys, however, kicked a last minute 40 metre drop goal to clinch the game and the league for Ulster.
Ulster started the 2006/2007 season in fine form racking up a number of notable victories including a 30-3 thrashing of perennial Heinieken Cup contenders Toulouse however following an abject display in Reading, where they lost 29-13 to London Irish, their season went from bad to worse with a number of poor performances, such as the home defeats to Munster, Glasgow and Llanelli, leading to a 5th place finish in the Magners League and another early exit from Europe.
The team began the 2007/2008 season well with a young side beating an Ospreys side including All Blacks Legend Justin Marshall 17-16 however following their opening day win the team went on a terrible run of form losing their next 3 games before David Humphreys inspired the team to a comeback draw against a star studded Leinster side at Ravenhill to suggest that the return of their World Cup stars could lead Ulster back up the table. However in the week before they opened their Heineken Cup Campaign Ulster lost 25-6 away to Glasgow. Mark McCall would then part company with Ulster on the 13th November 2007 following Ulster's embarrassing 32-14 home defeat to Gloucester in the opening round of the 2007-08 Heineken Cup, with assistant coach Steve Williams taking temporary charge of the team.
Under Williams Ulster seemed to get back on track with a brave display in France culminating in an unlucky 24-17 away defeat to Bourgoin and following an away win at Connacht, 30-13, things seemed to be improving however Ulster then lost at home to Edinburgh, home and away to the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup and away to Leinster to leave them firmly rooted to the bottom of the Magners League and out of Europe.
On the 30th of December 2007 former Leinster and Scotland Head Cosch Matt Williams was named Mark McCall's successor as Ulster's Head Coach. He took charge at the beginning of February, but despite some improved performances, he failed to turn the season around; Ulster finishing 9th in the 2007/08 Magners League (ahead of Connacht).
Note : Philip Matthews captained the Lions in their victory against France in Paris. The game was part of the celebrations of the bi-centennial of the French Revolution. The match was not however treated as a "formal" Lions international.