Glasgow Caledonian Reds ... 19 Ulster ..... 31

It was all very different from Ulster's last away day. Then, after driving down the coast to Dublin in January, they lifted the European Cup amidst rapturous scenes before a capacity crowd.

On Saturday, decidedly fewer of their kinsmen joined them in crossing the Irish Sea, yet coach Harry Williams clearly felt they had once again enjoyed a very beneficial experience as well as a victory.

''This was very worthwhile,'' he said of what was not too much more than an intensified training session in Stranraer.

''Two weeks ago we were at our wits' end when the Spanish Barbarians cried off, so we were extremely grateful to Glasgow Caledonians for stepping in.''

If nothing else, then, the fixture may have served to foster good relations between the Celtic neighbours ahead of the possible creation of a Celtic League for season 2000/2001.

Not that Williams, an Ulsterman with a rare capacity for delicately sidestepping contentious political issues, was being drawn too far on that one.

''We would like Ulster to be full-time. You only get better playing better teams often enough, so it would be valuable,'' he admitted.

''We were keen to be part of a Celtic League last year, but a British League would have left our leading players facing forty plus games a year and that's too many.''

That the Irish Rugby Union's agreement on leading players' availability for club rugby runs out at the end of the coming season, provides the opportunity for them to join a Celtic League thereafter.

Only a vastly improved showing by Ireland in the World Cup and Six Nations' Championship will help their clubs' cause. That it was Scotland who subsequently won the Five Nations title while Ireland again struggled horribly, can have escaped the attention of no-one on the Emerald Isle.

In that context, Saturday's match was probably more encouraging for new Reds coach Richie Dixon, rather than Williams, whose men have been together for a fortnight longer ahead of next weekend's Inter-Provincial Championship opener.

The closest this exercise - undergone in alien conditions for both sides, glorious, warm sunshine baking the wide open London Road playing field that is Wigtownshire's home - came to a real match was in the first and final quarters and the home side had the better of the former with honours even in the latter.

Their captain, Andy Nicol, whose performance drew praise from both coaches, as well as Scotland manager Arthur Hastie, was a key figure in all three of their tries.

The first was a result of his brilliant one-handed take from a Marty Waite line-out tap midway inside the Ulster half, Nicol getting into his running immediately to slice through the defence before putting the lively Waite over in the left corner.

Hastie was there principally to gauge the form of Scotland squad members Gordon Simpson and Shaun Longstaff.

There was, then, disappointment for him in Longstaff's absence, a slight ankle injury ruling him out after four hours on the road - having set off from Dundee at 8.30am. Simpson's hour-long performance in different back-row roles, however, was hugely encouraging . . . even his typical moment of madness when squaring up to the towering figure of former Irish captain Paddy Johns.

''He took exception to me coming through a ruck,'' he said. ''You know me, I don't take no **** from nobody. I don't care if they're 10 feet tall.''

There having been sufficient negatives in that observation to counteract one another, Simpson's pugnacious verbal delivery merely contributed to the impression of a thoroughly positive effort on his behalf. He was involved more profitably, though, when his interception set up Reds' second try. His excellent delivery released Nicol on the left and the scrum half was supported by Alan Bulloch.

Fielded at full back, Bulloch's performance justified his coaches' belief that he has grown in stature after doing well on Scotland's recent tour. He brushed off one tackle and stood up well in another before Jon Stuart, an impressive newcomer and Rory Kerr, linked well to give Ian Jardine just enough room to score.

Andy Ward's try reduced the deficit before that first period was up and, after a scoreless second quarter, tries by Sheldon Coulter, Riaz Fredericks and Johns swept Ulster into 24-12 lead entering the final 20.

The highlight of that, though, was the Reds' final try, Bulloch sparking a counter-attack to allow Jardine to roll back the years with a powerful run deep into Ulster territory. Waite supported well before Nicol made further ground, then was astonished to find prop Willie Anderson outside him.

He, in turn, made a decent job of supplying winger Torquil Mathewson who stepped inside the last defender.

Topping burst clear for the final try after a half-break by Ireland stand-off David Humphreys and, over the piece, Ulster were worthy of their win, but the Reds earned Williams' observation that both they and Scottish rivals Edinburgh Reivers are as good as any side Ulster have faced in Europe.

Of course, it will be a very different European Cup this year but, while they have things to work on, not least in the lineout, for all newcomer Steve Griffiths' promising debut, the Reds have much to build on as they head for Canada this week.