Belfast Telegraph

Ian Humphreys is ready to step up to the mark for Ulster

By Michael Sadlier

It's at times like these that experienced players are worth their payslips in terms of lifting the mood and cajoling those around them to stand and deliver.

And Ian Humphreys is not only finding himself in this bracket of being one of the squad's elder, and wiser, statesmen, but the 32-year-old is also having to focus on what looks like a lengthy stint as starting out-half after Paddy Jackson's injury woes have left him sidelined again.

Indeed, Humphreys played most of the game last Saturday in Toulon, after Jackson fractured his elbow, so dissecting the 60-22, eight-try, tanking and the fallout which resulted in that record European defeat are all up for discussion pretty rapidly.

"A lot of players are hurting," Humphreys says after coming away from a place-kicking session that the former Leicester Tigers and London Irish player reported had gone pretty well.

"At training there was a bit of niggle and that's good, a good sign ahead of the tough test on Saturday," he adds of Ulster's final European pool game against his old team-mates from Welford Road.

Ulster, currently bottom of Pool Three, have nothing but pride to play for and the possibility of doing everything they can of avoiding ending up propping up the group for the first time since 2008, along with the overwhelming desire to atone for last Saturday, is clearly focusing minds.

"We knew the difficulty in the task when we went out there (to Toulon)," says Humphreys.

"So it's not ideal and I'd be very surprised if I'm ever involved in a team that concedes 60 points again, and I never have been in the past, but now we've got this weekend against Leicester."

Indeed so, and Richard Cockerill's squad are coming here to chase down a bonus point win as they are still in pursuit of a spot in the last eight as one of the best three runners-up.

An ideal time then for Ulster to avenge last October's round one defeat at Welford Road and derail the Tigers' hopes while restoring some pride to what has been an all too rickety European season. And not forgetting that this is also a great chance for Humphreys to get one over on his former employers which he has done before in an Ulster shirt but never quite managed to do so while with London Irish for two seasons.

"We lost to Toulon at the start of the Champions Cup, but we've a proud record here and we don't want two defeats at home this season in the competition," he says.

Humphreys offers genuine sympathy to Jackson's plight and mentions that he certainly didn't expect to get as much game-time as has come his way since his return to Belfast last summer. Indeed, Friday will be his 14th outing of the season and eighth start which will bring him to just two shy of a century of Ulster appearances.

And this frequent involvement has all come about, of course, due to Jackson's injury profile during this campaign.

It's an opportunity for Humphreys, though, and he knows that the pressure is on to not only ensure that a victory is delivered tomorrow but that also, going forward, that he will be spearheading the push towards the key aim of securing of a PRO12 play-off place.

"Yes, I hopefully will now get a chance to get a few games together to try and help the team to get a few wins and, after this weekend, to concentrate on the league," he says.

Kicking crops up in the conversation and the memory bank unfortunately lingers on his agonising miss from long range when an unlikely bonus point was on offer in the home game with Toulon and then that close range one that got away in the PRO12 match at Munster which would have snatched a win.

"My stats have matched up well in the league and I think I've got about 86% which is pretty good but in Europe I've struggled for whatever reasons," he says.

"I'm not exactly sure why that is but I'm hitting the ball well in practice now. I enjoy kicking and I enjoy the pressure and the responsibility of being the kicker," Humphreys adds though not revealing whether he or Ruan Pienaar will be primarily responsible for shots at goal come tomorrow.

The one thing that does look for definite is that Neil Doak needs Humphreys - who relishes attacking opportunities off front-foot ball - to stay fit for the next while and bring his considerable experience to bear on Ulster's remaining ambition for the season.

"We've one more game and then a couple of weeks off and with boys away at national camp it's up to us that remain to push on and really try and solidify a top four spot (in the PRO12) and then see where it goes from there.

"But this weekend we want to go out and put in a good performance for our supporters to finish off our involvement in Europe."

The time is now for Humphreys to stand up and help Ulster plot a steadier course again.

Champions Cup: Kingspan Stadium, 5.30pm (Sky Sports)

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