The URSC welcomed Paddy Wallace, Rory Best and Jared Payne to the floor for a night of questions, photographs and shirt signings, as another Meet the Players event provided an occasion for all at Ravenhill last week. Discussion surrounding the current international season dominated conversation, with Irish fever sweeping across the Ulster camp.
Roger Wilson was expected to join Wallace and Payne, however his call up for Ireland training duty resulted in faithful Best standing in, but by no means making up the numbers.
Wallace joined proceedings fashionably late, only to be greeted by a rapturous applause, following a phone call which reassured the crowd of him being only “two minutes away”. His discussion of the famous Portugal phone call from “Deccy” Kidney ahead of last summer’s final All Black test soon made up for the delayed start.
Wallace’s Portugal confessions revealed how he had left all forms of communication in his holiday apartment, when deciding to take a trip to the beach with the kids. “I returned, and there were at least ten missed calls, texts and emails”, he said. Kidney’s instructions to “get your bags packed, you’re coming to New Zealand”, resulted in Wallace travelling across continents, through day and night, in order to pull on the green jersey. “You are always willing to play for your country; you just don’t think things through logically”, he admitted. It was also amusing to hear of the silencing of relations between man and wife when this situations arises, “put it this way, I wasn’t speaking to the Mrs for a few hours”.
Payne’s inclusion in the panel was a treat, considering his torrid experience with injury last season. He gave an insight into how he coped with the disappointment of being ruled out for so long. “In terms of recovery, I mainly concentrated on short term goals, rather than looking ahead too far into the future”, he explained. Payne also revealed how he enjoyed plenty of nights out on the town, dabbling in the Belfast night life, “enjoying the things professional players rarely get the opportunity to do”.
Thoughts turned to Ireland’s recent clash with the Springboks, and in particular, a certain Ruan Pienaar. His acrobatic dive over some of his fellow Ulstermen, to reach the line and shatter Irish hearts, generated comical responses from the players. Best’s reaction confirmed his admiration for Pienaar’s audacity, “I’d maybe congratulate him”. Wallace is similarly looking to take an ironic approach and “welcome him back with open arms”.
On the topic of scrum halves, Paul Marshall’s position in both the Ireland and Ulster squads soon became a talking point. Although included in the Ireland squad for last weekend’s demolition of Fiji, it is clear that many question whether the talents of the Ulster magician are being taken seriously by both national and provincial HQ. Marshall’s whippet-like displays behind the Ulster pack “are not being recognised”, according to one supporter.
Best took the reins on this tricky subject and explained why it is difficult for Marshall to be perceived as the starting nine for Ireland or indeed, at times for Ulster. “The two boys that Declan picked in the squad both start for their provinces, and Ruan showed at the Aviva why he starts for us”, he said. Marshall’s fight for the starting Ulster shirt, against one of the best nines in the world, unfortunately gives Kidney one less headache selection when he approaches the team sheet come crucial international periods.
The decision to not classify Ireland’s game against Fiji as an international was met with dismay by Best, Wallace and Payne. Wallace highlighted why the match had been moved from the Aviva to Thomond, identifying “financial reasons”. According to the IRFU, the game against Fiji was moved as it was felt it would not be able to fill the Aviva’s 50,000 capacity. Payne saw it as a “mark of disrespect” for the Fijians, who defeated Wales in the 2007 Rugby World Cup to claim a quarter final spot. Best considered the impact upon the Irish players, many of which do not receive a cap for their debut performance.
Payne wrapped up the evening with a cheeky response to the questioning of his favourite position, “on the field?” he jokingly replied. After the waves of laughter died down, Payne considered his “best position” to be outside centre, concluding that is where he plays his best rugby.