Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Olding, the find of season, keeps Ulster eyes smiling

Stuart Olding has taken his chance in superb style

Every now and again you see something in rugby which puts a smile on your face – a moment of magic, a touch of class.

You watch the replay time and time again and marvel. These moments don't come along too often but they are important. Why? They remind you why you love rugby.

For all the chat and discussion about performance, league position, team selection and tactics, we need the odd reminder about why we watch and that skill and not size can make a difference. What is rugby about? Physicality, technical expertise and aggression will come near the top of the list for most people.

Sleight of hand and vision may not necessarily come to mind – a sad indictment of the modern game – but both are invaluable.

Brian O'Driscoll provided such a moment in Ireland's opening Six Nations game against Wales. His floated pass for Simon Zebo's try oozed the most acute sense of time, space and peripheral vision – further proof (as if we didn't need any more) that O'Driscoll is a class apart from the vast majority of other professional rugby players.

Last Saturday another world class performer, Ruan Pienaar, conjured up a similar moment. His flick pass behind his back to Andrew Trimble, who was coming on an outside arc, was sublime in its vision and execution. Trimble was flat out and did not have to check stride or waste time or focus trying to grasp the ball.

To see the pass is one thing, to gauge the run of the supporting player is another, to execute under pressure and make the pass with tacklers bearing down on you takes real composure.

When you put all these aspects together and add to the mix the understanding that Trimble showed in anticipating where the space was and that the pass could be made, it was a fabulous moment of skill.

Moreover, in the lead-up to the try it was once again Darren Cave who provided the pass to release Trimble initially down the right flank.

I have said it a few times, but when Ulster play their best rugby Cave is invariably involved, whether getting width into the game or unlocking a defence through offloads. Cave's contribution in the run up to Stuart Olding's opening score was also marked and serves as a valid example to other young players about how your job is not over once you have given the pass.

Mark McCall did his homework several weeks ago, because the Saracens blitz defence snuffed Cave out of the game, his chances were limited and we hardly heard his name mentioned.

The mention of Saracens' head coach also brings another thought to mind. Surely the find of the season is Stuart Olding?

Since Paddy Wallace's injury and Luke Marshall's enforced absence through concussion, Olding has taken his chance magnificently, but the moment of clarity I had watching the game is how much Olding reminds me of McCall in his pomp.

Maybe it is the shock of blonde hair or the similar stature, although weights have contributed to a chunkier 21st century version of the inside centre.

Features of both are great pace and balance, lovely soft hands, great footwork and the ability to sidestep at pace, yet a strength and doggedness that allows both to punch above their weight in the tackle.

Like McCall, Olding's ability and experience in the outhalf shirt serve him well in his distribution and decision-making skills. He has an eye for a gap, runs good supporting lines and defensively scythes players down.

He goes low and they go down – simple.

Along with Marshall, Olding is exactly the sort of player that Ireland needs to be grabbing with both hands.

Get him on the Ireland tour and don't just have him holding bags for the 'experience'. Get him on the pitch, get him playing, and undoubtedly both Ulster and Ireland will benefit. Oh to be 20 years of age again and that good!

Five tries and five points were a good reminder that Ulster can play some sparkling rugby.

It was far from perfect but confidence and form are returning. The far bigger test is going to be producing a massive performance in a massive game against a top team.

It looks as if both players and coaches will get their chance.

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