Stars of the senior squad entertained an enthusiastic crowd at the URSC’s latest Meet the Players event on Tuesday evening at Ravenhill. The Front Row Union of Rory Best, John Afoa, Tom Court, Niall Annett, Callum Black and Rob Herring took to the spotlight to address everything from Heineken Cup ambitions to their least preferred choice of roommate.
A witty introduction to each of the players revealed Afoa’s opinion on the new Ulster kit, “It’s only a piece of cloth, it’s what is inside it that counts”, he said. It was also interesting to hear of Court’s passion for literature, as well as Fitzpatrick’s previously held position of grounds man at Belfast Harlequins. Comical interchanges between the players and the crowd were a highlight, with an insight into the personal lives of the Front Row Union being offered early on in the evening.
Questions of technicality paved the way for questions from the floor, as the recent introduction of ‘crouch, touch, engage’, became the topic of conversation. Best recognised the frustrations of collapsed scrums and the advantages of the new rules, which “bring an additional contest to the front row, whilst also ensuring the safety of the players involved”, he said. Best also nominated Bryce Lawrence from New Zealand as one of his favourite referees, when asked for his choice of adjudicator come scrum-time.
Through their experience of rugby in New Zealand and South Africa, Afoa and Herring spoke of the differences between the southern and northern hemisphere scrums. Herring acknowledged the importance of the set piece in the northern hemisphere, referring to the “emphasis which is placed on the scrum in order to gain match dominance in comparison to back home”.
Thoughts turned to Ulster’s Heineken Cup campaign and the squad’s preparations for their contest against Northampton Saints. Questions surrounding the player’s opinion on the Saints’ scrum revealed Rory Best’s suspicions, “Judging from their first half performance against Glasgow, you could ask questions of Northampton, as Glasgow held their own”, he said. However, Best still referred to the dominance of the Northampton set piece, insisting that it must be treated with “respect” by his Ulstermen.
It was made clear through Tom Court that the squad’s ambition this year is to win the Heineken Cup alongside topping the RaboDirect PRO12 table. “We want to push for success in both competitions rather than just concentrating on one”, he said. It was also interesting to hear that Mark Anscombe’s encouragement of players outside of the typical fifteen to break into the senior squad, keeps even the internationals on their toes. “It only makes us work harder for our shirt, and as a result our performances as a squad improve”, said Court.
When asked for any scrum-time stories, Niall Annett’s experience of a lick to the face stood out as a memorable anecdote, whilst the question of “Who do you not like to room with?” prompted the names of Paul Marshall and Mike McComish from the players. Court highlighted “that they usually get put together”, whilst also admitting that he provides plenty of pizza and Coca-Cola for his roommates. Fitzpatrick nominated himself as a snorer, but a considerate one at that, offering ear plugs to his lucky bunkers.
The question of rugby heroes rounded up the evening, with each of the Front Row Union giving an inspirational name. Best mentioned Irish legend Keith Wood, Court chose John Hayes, Herring went for John Schmitt, Annett highlighted Sean Fitzpatrick, and Afoa named Xavier Rush. Both Black and Fitzpatrick joked around to eventually pin point both football and rugby heroes in Eric Cantona and Jonah Lomu.
A perfect photo opportunity was provided through our very own Front Row Union, with the presentation of branded gear from some of the girls associated with women’s rugby in Ulster concluding events.
The next Meet the Players event will take place on the 6th of November, where another host of players will preview the autumn internationals. After my experience of ‘meeting’ the Front Row Union, I would definitely recommend attending this one. The chance to quiz the professionals and gain an insight into their characters is an opportunity which is not to be missed.
You can get in free if you are a URSC member, otherwise the bargain price of £5 will gain you admission, with tickets available from the URSC info point on match nights.