On Tuesday night, around 70 Ulster supporters gathered at Ravenhill to quiz a panel of Ulster players about the upcoming Autumn Internationals, as well as having a chance to say goodbye to fan favourite, Bryn Cunningham who sadly announced his retirement from rugby last month.
After an introduction from URSC Chairman Iain Campbell, Johnathan Bell took over proceedings and introduced the panel for the evening. After all, it’s not every day you have a panel of two World Cup winning Boks, an European Cup winning Ulsterman, an Irish international Bear, a Lion and a Greek Cypriot hooker…
Jeremy Davidson – From Methody to London Irish. From Castres to Ulster – via a very successful Lions trip to South Africa. He survived the rough and tumble of rugby around the world, only to be finished off by a fishing trip.
BJ Botha – He brings skill, finesse and technique to the front row, and if that’s not a contradiction in terms… He likes to ‘tweet’ and he likes to Braai – sometimes, simultaneously.
Johann Muller – The leader of the pack. He was the August/September URSC Player of the Month, securing over half the votes cast.
Andi Kyraciou – A very good friend of the Supporters Club, having been on duty at the URSC tent for the recent Glasgow game. He’s also been a panellist on a previous occasion and he’s the guy to ask about the amount of feta cheese in Pienaar’s quiche. (It’s an ‘in joke’ but if you’ve read Rugby World magazine’s interview with Ruan, you’ll understand!)
Bryan Young – A bear in our midst. Apparently there’s a prize to be won on a local well-known rugby website (The FRU, ahem) for pictures of said bear, being hugged by a fearless fan. So Bryan, beware to be knocked over in the rush.
And last but certainly not least, Bryn Cunningham – The shy and now retiring European Cup winner. According to Johnathan’s wife there’s a career on the catwalk for Bryn, unlike a career in the doghouse that she predicts for Johnathan!
At this stage of the evening, Johnathan took a few minutes to pay tribute to Bryn for everything he has achieved with his time at Ulster.
“For most of us, our first memory of Bryn will be the Ulster European Cup quarter-final against Toulouse in 1998. You’ll all remember that night, maybe for Andy Ward’s dramatic blue-light dash (courtesy of Ronnie Flanagan) to the Lagan Valley Hospital, for the birth of his son Zack. However, it also featured a stunning cover tackle from Sir David Humphreys, in which the Great One injured his shoulder.
Cue a skinny, young out-half replacement for the final five minutes of the match. Yes, it was Bryn. Younger and half the size of his brother Jan, he stood the entire five minutes, waiting in the wind and the rain for scrum half Andy Matchett to pass the ball from a series of scrums 20 yards out from our own line. The pass never came, but thankfully the final whistle did. A couple of months later, Bryn was a European Cup winner.
Since then he has made the Ulster No.15 shirt his own with his fearlessly consistent clearing of the high ball, truly the main weapon of any fullbacks’ armoury. Scandalously overlooked for international duty, he saw off a series of assaults on his place from Mark Bartholomeusz and Clinton Schifcofske and reigned supreme until his latest injuries. 150 matches later and sadly the attrition of being the last line of defence has sadly caught up with Bryn and he’s now preparing for civvy street.
Bryn we wish you well in whatever the future holds for you and we thank you for the significant contribution to Ulster Rugby and on behalf of all the Ulster Rugby supporters, we’d like to show you our appreciation, our affection and most of all our respect.”
After receiving a personalised glass bowl from Iain Campbell, Bryn took a few moments thank everyone.
“Thank you very much – it means an awful lot to me. I suppose this will be the last opportunity I will get to thank the hardcore element of the Ulster supporters who are here tonight. You have been great to me over the years and I truly appreciate it. It’s made my life very easy on the pitch, and off the pitch you’ve rarely criticised me, which at times has probably been warranted. You have been very good to me and I’ve enjoyed my 13 years here. Hopefully we’ll see much more success from Ulster over the next year or two, so thank you all very much again for your support.”
With a few of the supporters – and possibly Bryn himself – starting to well up, Johnathan decided to kick off question time! However, there was no-one willing to ask a question first, so Bryn joked, “It could be a short night.” And that was all it took to get the crowd going…
Slightly off-topic from the Autumn Internationals, but your match on Friday night against Munster is always a huge fixture, but with the IRFU ruling that certain International players are to be rested, do you think that will take something away from the importance of the clash?
Davidson: I do agree, but these Autumn Internationals are very important, more important than they’ve ever been and it’s going to be a real barometer for the World Cup. Ireland haven’t had four Autumn Internationals before, so I know if I was the Irish coach I would make sure that if any players were carrying knocks or bumps, I would have ample backup and players available so I wouldn’t have to change the squad over the next 5 weeks. It’s unfortunate and not exactly what we want, but those players are involved in the Irish set-up and the pinnacle of their career is to play for Ireland. While it is unfortunate, Leinster are also suffering, Munster are suffering and John Muldoon and Gavin Duffy are missing for Connacht. Despite missing some of our big players, I don’t think it takes away from the fixture. Both sides are very strong and will fight it out here on Friday night. We’ve prepared very well this week and I’m sure Munster have as well and the fact that we are both well placed in the top four of the Magners League, I think it adds a real spice to the game.
Muller: We’ve had a great week in training, off the back of two really disappointing weeks but it’s given the younger players the chance to come into the side, hold up their hands and show their talent. We are looking onwards and upwards and we’re ready for Friday night. I’ve never played against Munster so I’m really excited. Just speaking to the guys who have played against them, it is one match I’m looking forward to the most, but we need to concentrate and make sure we play well.
I find myself getting increasingly confused by the referees, the front row and the whole ‘pausing’ business before a scrum. Have you any thoughts on the issue or any way you think it could be improved?
BJ quickly jumps in, “You’re not the only one!” before passing the microphone to Bryan.
Young: BJ will probably agree when I say it’s frustrating. The referees will often talk to you before the game and tell you to try and get the timings and sequence right, but during the game the sequence might change. There have been games where the scrum has gone down and I’ve thought it’s been against me but it hasn’t, and vice versa. Sometime you might be on top of the opposition and the referee will give a few decisions for you, but then he might re-address the balance and go against you.
Botha: I’m still confused about the scrum if I’m honest and sometimes I think it really is a lottery out there. It’s frustrating for us, but hopefully we will gain consistency in the scrum and not have to worry about us being penalised.
Alan Lewis is the referee on Friday night. Do you think that will have a positive or negative influence on the game?
Kyriacou: Alan is a top match referee, but I think the other main aspect is if the referee sees both teams are being given offences against themselves, the referee will talk to them. Alan is very good at doing that as he wants to try and get the game flowing. I think with the game on Friday he’ll keep talking to everyone and make sure that everyone is looking to be positive at scrum time. We found in Edinburgh at the weekend, that there was a lot of mucking around and it took Edinburgh a while to come down and set the scrum. It made the game very stop-start for us and it’s important that the game starts flowing a lot more in the scrum area for us.
Having watched the Tri-Nations, do you think Ireland and other Northern Hemisphere teams are lacking the pace that the Tri-Nations is played at, thus hampering their chances for success in the AI’s?
Botha: Rugby in the Southern Hemisphere is definitely a lot quicker, especially given the weather conditions, but I think with any International match, it’s a massive game. For every side that is involved, the best players in the world will be playing. I think Ireland’s preparation will be the same as the lead up to any other game, but it’s going to be a great spectacle.
Can we look forward to seeing you play in one of these games?
Botha: We are all hopeful that we will play for our country again, as we would like to. However, it’s in the hands of the selectors so we will have to wait and see what happens.
Can we have predictions from the panel about how you think the games will go, particularly Ireland’s games against South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina?
Davidson: I think Ireland will win three out of four and I’m probably be controversial here, but I think the South Africans won’t be used to our weather and the surfaces under foot – Dublin is not exactly an exotic location like Durban, so I think it’ll give Ireland the opportunity to beat them like they did last year. I think we’ll beat Samoa and Argentina, but unfortunately I can’t see us standing up to New Zealand. They play with such pace, commit very few numbers to the breakdown, always seem to have overlaps and they keep the ball alive. They are a fantastic rugby team and I can’t see them choking at the World Cup like they have in the past.
Looking at the Irish squad, I think the question is ‘have we passed our sell-by date’ and I think that’s what a few people are asking. There’s only two uncapped players included in the squad – Devin Toner and Johnny Murphy – and I don’t think they’ll be involved in all the games. It’s good to see Devin Toner included as he narrowly missed out for the summer tour. He’s 6ft10 and very athletic but the question mark is, ‘Is he tough enough to play international rugby?’ We’ll find that out with the top quality opposition Ireland will be playing, but I think three wins out of four. I’ll apologise to the South Africans sitting beside me, but being on home soil and playing in a new stadium will give us the advantage we need.
Cunningham: It’s difficult to add to what Jeremy has just said as I agree with everything. I’m also saying three wins for Ireland. Weather conditions always play a role during the Autumn Internationals as it’s typically not great weather. They are without Paul O’Connell which will be a huge loss for them but I think being back and playing in the Aviva will kick in and make a big difference to the squad and they’ll start strongly. New Zealand harvest so many quality players so it’ll be tough to overlook them, and I think when the World Cup starts, they will be the prime candidates to beat. Three out of four matches would be a great return, however Ireland v Argentina is always an interesting match. Ireland don’t always particularly well against the Pumas and they’ve had some poor losses in the past, so it’ll be interesting to see.
Botha: I think it’ll be easier if I predict South Africa’s matches! I find it difficult to play here – in 2006 we played in Ireland in the 100-year old jerseys and it a tough game. They came out firing and it was one of those games where Ireland came out another beast. Croke Park again was another one and it was a tight game. Ireland are looking to make Aviva their fortress and they’ll want to start that campaign strongly but South Africa are bringing over a good team even with the injury setbacks. It’s going to be one encounter I don’t want to miss.
Muller: I think BJ has said it all. I think if South Africa were going to do as badly as they did in the Tri-Nations, I probably would have backed Ireland to win the fixture, but a desperate South African is a dangerous South African! I truly believe that it’s going to be a different side that comes here, compared to the team that played in the Tri-Nations. Yes, they’ve injuries and the weather conditions aren’t what they will be used to, but I think Ireland are going to miss Paul O’Connell. He is an excellent leader and brilliant in the lineout and without him, I see the pack at a disadvantage. Obviously I’m backing the Boks to win and they want to redeem themselves after a really poor Tri-Nations campaign. It’s going to be good and I think there’s only going to be two or three points in it.
Kyriacou: Well since you lads have analysed Ireland and South Africa, I’ll go for the big one… Japan v Samoa! Obviously that’s going to be a massive fixture to kick off the Autumn Internationals and I think Samoa will put in some pretty crunchy hits. Moving on from Japan, which will be an awesome experience for them as it’ll gear them up for the bigger games, such as Ireland. They may not have the best game plan but there physicality is massive and they won’t take a step back against any team they face. Their last fixture is against Scotland and I think it’ll be an upset with Samoa having the upper hand. My boys, the Samoans, will do well!
Young: I’ll admit, I’m hoping to see a few shocks. I rate the Australians as I think they are building something. I can see them pushing New Zealand close in the first fixture and I’d like to see NZ beaten. As for Ireland v South Africa, I think Ireland will have the edge, but it will be very close. I might even back a draw for that game. The Irish guys had a tough tour in the summer but they did play some excellent rugby – they have good coaches and good players who want to build towards the World Cup. It’d be nice for them to beat New Zealand and get that monkey off their back.
Just how much of a step up is playing Magners’ League rugby to International Test rugby?
Young: It’s strange actually because when you advance in your rugby, the contacts made are more crisp, the technique is better at the breakdown, taking the ball into tackles is better and there’s probably fewer scrums. The standard is just higher, it’s quicker and you’re playing with guys who have slightly better skills.
Botha: I think the main difference, for me anyway, when playing international rugby is the errors you make are really going to be punished with points and also at the moment, it seems to be the dominant side at the breakdown, is the side that wins the match. You need to be clinical at taking points when you can – you have to come away with points after putting so much pressure on your opposition.
With the World Cup only a year away, Ireland have no cover at thirteen and there seems to be no experimentation with different players trying out. Do you think that’s a mistake coming into the World cup?
Cunningham: I think I’ve got this one as I’m the only back up here! You sometimes have years where you are quite light in a certain position, and at the moment Ireland seem to be light at 13. A couple of players have been tried there – Earls being one of them – to maybe fill the berth when O’Driscoll leaves. Even here at Ulster, with Darren Cave out injured, we didn’t have much variation at 13 either. Andrew Trimble was at 13 last week but if we’re honest his best position is on the wing however because you’re stuck for options that’s what you have to do. It’s the same for Ireland – as a 13 you’ve got to have the pace, but you also need to have footballing attributes and that’s something that’s struggling in Irish rugby. I think it’s a big problem because there has been such an emphasis the last few years on building guys to be bigger and stronger from schools’ level. From the age of 16, they are on weights programmes and are learning to run through the opposition, but once they get to a professional setup they can’t do that the same as the opposition are just as big, if not bigger and stronger. As a result, the player hasn’t actually built up a set of skills and once you get to the age of 21 or 22, it’s very difficult to develop those skills – you can only improve them so much.
Davidson: I think it’s a vicious circle too. When you have the best 13 in the world, it doesn’t give many players the chance to play at International level. There are some options – Tommy Bowe has played at 13 for the Ospreys and Luke Fitzgerald and with Keith Earls are coming through too. Darren Cave has played for Ireland ‘A’ and we would like to see him breakthrough and have another chance to play at International level as he is a tremendously talented player.
Do you think Munster will be hard to beat on Friday night?
Young: (after a long deliberation) Yes. In all seriousness, there are no easy games anymore. Maybe seven years ago you had teams were you were almost guaranteed a win, but now anyone can beat anyone and that’s the good thing with the Magners League at the minute – one win can push you back into the top four if you have slipped out of it.
Going back to the issue of the back row, we seem to have put out the biggest back row we can the last few matches. Are the days of the traditional ‘groundhog’ number seven, like Willie Faloon, numbered?
Davidson: No, not at all. Obviously, the decision was made to go for a bigger pack heading to France as the set piece is one of the most highly contested areas in French rugby. With the new breakdown laws it lessens the ability of a number seven to contest for the ball straightaway, and it gives the opposition more of a chance to hold on to the ball to ensure quality ball moving forward. So whilst it might detract from an out-and-out seven, the days of a seven like Willie Faloon or Chris Henry aren’t numbered; they are very good competitors and are modern rugby players who have an array of skills. Whilst Willie hasn’t been getting the nod, we have a very strong back row this year and getting the balance will take a bit of time, but we’ve a very competitive squad and everyone is fighting for their spot. Everyone has been training hard and even those who haven’t been selected every week have remained positive and continued to train well. Our new signings have settled into the team and whilst our temperatures may be difficult for them to adjust to (this week especially) when it’s been colder, the standard, enthusiasm and commitment within the squad has been fantastic.
If the opportunity came, despite coming with a whole lot of baggage but being an incredibly talented player, would Gavin Henson have been a worthwhile signing for Ulster? In other words, is he worth it?
Cunningham: From experience, I think it can be more disruptive to the squad if a signing comes with a lot of baggage and isn’t willing to work with the team as a unit. If they have too much of an ego, divisions will occur and things will go wrong. For example, the Ospreys are an amazing team and they should be wiping the floor with any side, but they aren’t, and I think it’s because there are some players on the team who are more concerned with their own individual game, rather than the team.
Young: I think Bryn has hit the nail on the head – guys who don’t mean any harm by it, but it’s destructive. They come in all fancy and smelling of flowers and things, but it’s not a good thing for a squad.
At this point someone from the floor comments that this ‘smelling and looking nice’ business, is in fact, the real reason Bryn is leaving the squad, and the real reason why Andi’s fingernails were painted red. Ulster Red, to be exact – but the reason for this soon followed. Despite trying to hide his fingernails for the entire evening, he was soon ‘outed’ by his supportive team mates. Andi skipped a meeting with his physio to stay at Declan Fitzpatrick’s barbeque. His name went into the hat and his punishment was to paint his nails ‘Ulster Red’ and have them stay that way for a week. Andi did finish his reasoning by blaming fellow front rower Nigel Brady for thinking up the punishments…
With regards to player selection, Declan Kidney can dictate for Paddy Wallace to play at fly-half, but does he also dictate other positions within the squad? For example, Chris Henry has played at 7, but he’s not a natural 7 like Willie Faloon?
Davidson: There are strict guidelines about how much game time the players can play which in turn dictates how much they play in each game and their positions too. It’s to ensure these players are top quality and are moving forward, playing to the best of their ability.
If money were no object, Bryn, who would like to replace you in the Number 15 shirt?
Cunningham: Mils Muliaina would be my choice (at which point a mobile phone started to ring and Bryn joked that was him calling). I think he’s the complete package for a fullback – he’s a tremendous player defensively, kicking out of hand, attacking, everything. There’s more to it than skills though – you also need someone who will fit into the squad and adapt to life here and become an integral part of the squad. He would certainly be my choice though.
There are a number of young kids here tonight. Do you have any advice for them playing rugby, and how to be successful in the sport?
Davidson: For me, there’s no substitution for hard work and dedication. You need to train hard every time and do your best on the field. Alan Solomons used to say, “Cream always rises to the top” and I fully believe that. I think if you are really serious about playing rugby professionally, you’ll put the hard work in and make your own luck in the future.
Botha: You need a genuine interest in the game and the skills you have will build as you get older. When you’re in the gym and getting stronger, remember to keep focusing on your skills as well – rugby is a game of skills.
Young: Play as many sports as you can to improve your hand-eye co-ordination and your skills, not just rugby.
Cunningham: Ulster have actually had a GAA coach visit us and give us advice on catching the ball, etc. from restarts and lineouts. When I took part I found it very beneficial and helps the whole squad. It can be difficult as each sport is so professional now, but do try and get involved in as many sports as you can.
What has happened to the kicking in rugby? It used to be that you set the ball up and kicked it. Now you don’t know what way it’s going to go – it’s not that complicated… (to which the entire room laughed).
Cunningham: It’s a fair question but I don’t think there are many players in the same league as Simon Mason was – he was just a phenomenal kicker. I know from the outside there are some saying, ‘I wish those guys would go out to the paddock and practice their kicks’, but they do. After every session, Ian Humphreys, Niall O’Connor, Paddy and Ruan are out there practising. There are two things for kicking – an innate ability of timing to hit the ball, and the other is practice. Chris Paterson (in his early years) was never considered an amazing kicker, yet he has develop his own style and practiced hard and now he’s one of the best in the world. I don’t know why they can hit 9 out of 10 kicks before the game, but once the game starts they miss more. There’s a huge mental attitude which goes along with it too – you’re in control of it but you also need to be able to block out the crowd screaming in your ear when you’re concentrating. I’ve probably answered your question as how to do it, but I honestly can’t say why it doesn’t always happen.
Botha: It’s confidence kicking, as Bryn has mentioned. When you look at some of the weather we had last year at Ravenhill, I’d rather be in the scrum than taking the kick, and it’s a great skill to be able to kick well.
Do the players practice at Ravenhill, or is it at Newforge?
Cunningham: No, they practice at Ravenhill a number of times a week – Newforge is like a wind tunnel and is virtually impossible to practice kicking on the paddock.
Do you think the silence at Ravenhill plays a part when taking the kicks? For example, is Ruan used to the supporters shouting and cheering in the background?
Muller: Ruan had been out of rugby for seven weeks with injury and he didn’t kick much during that time because of that, but all the guys are dedicated. We will have finished our training session and will be eating lunch and they will still be out practising. It’s not as easy as putting it down and kicking it. Like BJ said, I’d rather be in the scrum as it’s not an easy job being a kicker and like Bryn said hopefully we’ll find some more consistent form soon.
Andi: It can be the smallest thing which can offset the balance and the biomechanics of the skill. It’s the same for me – I had a mare last week – and it’s the smallest things that make a huge difference, such as taking my right hand off the ball a millisecond too soon. It’s difficult.
What do you think of the inclusion of the two Italian teams in the Magners league?
Cunningham: It’s nice trips away!
Young: I think it’s been brilliant and the competition has been great. It’s brought a freshness to the competition and we also face them in the Heineken too.
Botha: I think it’s great for Italian rugby and rugby as a whole – it’s spreading the game North to South, East to West and it’s great exposure. A lot of their players have come home to play in the different teams which is a good thing for the young players and children in the country. They look to them and aspire to reach that level.
Davidson: It’s a major step for Italian rugby to become more professional. I know one of the coaches in Italy and he said it was a shambles – some days the players wouldn’t turn up for training as they had decided to take the day off. In France, it took them a few years to become fully professional and Italy are now turning that way too. While Aironi may not have had a successful start to the season, they are a very competitive side and they will learn from the teams they are playing against.
What are you dressing up as for Halloween?
Davidson: I went to Eliot’s earlier but the queue was too big, so I’ll have to wait a while longer to get my Buzz Lightyear outfit sorted!
Johann said a desperate Bok is a dangerous Bok. Is Munster going to pay for that on Friday, given the last two weeks?
Muller: We need to take a good look at ourselves this week, as individuals and as a squad, and play better than we have. Come Friday, it will be a different team out there.
And the final question (from the adults) of the night, courtesy of Holywood Mike…
I know you’ve been to Italy before, is there any chance of cheerleaders there?
Muller: No comment!
Andi then took the chance to encourage the kids who attended to ask a few questions, and not be intimidated by the adults around them.
What age did you start playing rugby?
Young: I really can’t remember. I started at Ballymena Academy because my friends were playing rugby. If you have the chance to play rugby at school, do.
Davidson: I started playing when I was 8, at Downey House and I was lucky to go to a school called Methodist College and play rugby there.
Kyriacou: I started playing rugby at senior school as well. I was a bigger kid than the others in my class and used to play football – I kept getting yellow cards for knocking the small kids over though, so someone suggesting trying rugby. And here I am!
Young: It’s never too late to start playing rugby though – Dan Tuohy didn’t start playing rugby until he was 19 and Tom Court started playing when he was older too.
Muller: I had an older brother who played rugby so I was born with a rugby ball in my hands! From three I was playing rugby against him and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Botha: We start school at 5, and one of the first things that happens is you’re given a rugby ball and everyone is put into teams. It’s the normal thing, so I’ve played since I was five.
Cunningham: It’s interesting, when you look at the New Zealanders though and you see them playing rugby and they are amazing. Yet to play football, they are shocking! I think it’s because they are totally focused on rugby and play it in their spare time. The culture here though, you tend to play football and other sports and I think that goes back to what we said earlier about the importance of playing different sports.
Botha: You need to enjoy it. In everything you do with rugby, enjoy it because it’s a great sport.