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Callum Black relishes having to fight for Ulster shirt

By Jonathan Bradley

When Ulster began their PRO12 campaign with a draw against the Scarlets, Callum Black was the man donning the No 1 jersey that in recent years has been worn with such distinction by the now-departed Tom Court.

Six days later, when Zebre were put to the sword by a score of 33-13, the American-born, English-raised, Irish-qualified prop was absent from the 23-man match day squad.

With the 23-year-old Andrew Warwick progressing apace and Ruaidhri Murphy joining from the Brumbies this summer, the battle for loosehead spots at the Kingspan Stadium looks set to rage for most of the campaign but Black wouldn't have it any other way.

Ahead of the trip to Cardiff on Friday, he said: "This year Les and the coaching system have really emphasised that everyone wants to be fighting for that jersey and there's good competition in every spot.

"Obviously there's me, Andrew and now Ruaidhri, so we're all pushing each other.

"It can only make us better players. Obviously on match day whoever gets that start we wish them all the best to push on and whoever comes off the bench can add to the team performance."

Set to return to the squad for the visit to the Cardiff Arms Park, Black knows that every outing is a chance to further his personal ambitions of nailing down a starting spot and a good performance on Friday, when the opposing tighthead would likely be the 100-Test prop Adam Jones, would be cause for considerable praise.

"I played against Adam Jones a few times," said Black.

"He's obviously got all that experience through the years and if he gets his game on then he's a top international player."

Cardiff's recent signing from their Welsh rivals Ospreys is not the only reason to be wary of a scrummaging unit that was strong, despite ultimately losing, against Glasgow Warriors last Sunday.

After watching that contest, Black reflected: "We know it's going to be a big challenge.

"Watching Cardiff, how they play, they're a very good side.

"The game against Glasgow, they really fronted up and took it to them and they put in a good performance at the start before slipping off in the last 20 minutes when Glasgow really won the game.

"They really did scrum well at times and any lapse in concentration and they could cause us problems."

As Black asserts the game will be a challenge, certainly sterner than the one posed by Zebre at the Kingspan last Friday, but there has been much work in training with new forwards coach Allen Clarke.

"We know that we've prepared well and our scrum is going well. We're building every week, we know that there are areas we can improve.

"We've worked hard all week and we're ready for it.

"Clarkey is a great coach, and obviously we had him last year as well as the scrum coach, so we're very familiar with how Clarkey works.

"With him as forwards coach, there's a lot of detail into the set-piece, both line-outs and scrums, and a lot of detail into what we do and holding ourselves accountable.

"There's still a lot of areas to work on and we've worked hard and we're hoping for an improved performance."

Black worked closely with another Ulster coach this summer when he was part of the successful Emerging Ireland squad led by Neil Doak and, having been disappointed to miss out on the squad the previous summer, Black relished the opportunity.

"It was, since underage group, the first taste of international rugby I've had so it was good to go into that environment and test myself and obviously that's the next step up.

"I really enjoyed the experience and hopefully if I keep improving this year then other opportunities will come up."

Despite being born in Washington, Black still hopes for those opportunities to come in the green of Ireland rather than linking up with a US Eagles squad that will play the likes of South Africa and Scotland in next year's World Cup.

The 28-year-old added: "I had the odd comment with people saying that I was born in America but I've always played my age-group rugby for Ireland so I'll be sticking with the Irish roots."

Before those international ambitions though, he has that battle with Warwick and Murphy to win.

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