Kyle McCall relishing his starring role in absence of others
Having watched from the stands when Ulster took on Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter-final two seasons ago, hard work is finally starting to pay off for prop Kyle McCall as he prepares to take on Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon tomorrow afternoon (1pm kick-off).
Having been handed a first senior start against Newport six weeks ago, the man named Ulster's Kingspan Player of the Month for November hasn't looked back while racking up a string of firsts.
After making both his home and European debut when Ulster lost to Saracens in their pool opener, he notched a first Champions Cup start against Toulouse last week and is looking forward to a first game in France when he starts tomorrow's rematch.
"A few years ago I was watching the Saracens game from the stands," recalled the 24-year-old.
"I remember saying to myself how much I'd love to be out there. What a great atmosphere the crowd were giving.
"The boys on the field, it just looked like it was a completely different buzz than I'd ever seen.
"It just made me think that I needed to be in there and how I needed to strive to get into the team.
"It was my first European start last weekend and I loved every minute. I just want to build on that as much as I can."
With that contest yielding a full five-point haul, McCall knows that a win tomorrow would have the province well positioned to make a real charge for the quarter-finals after Christmas, even if he expects Toulouse to offer a far better showing than they managed in Belfast last week.
"If we get a result it puts us right in the mix," he said.
"Going to France and getting a win is something that's very, very difficult.
"From what Rory (Best) and everyone else who has experience of it has said, it's a massive challenge for us but we're up for it.
"We've completely turned the page from last week. This is a new game, there's been a new week of preparation and if we aren't right then we won't perform. Last week has nothing to do with Sunday."
McCall's impressive run of individual form, which has kept Andy Warwick on the bench and sees Callum Black with the 'A' side this afternoon, has been well received at the Kingspan with team-mates praising the work ethic of the Ballynahinch clubman.
McCall says that his noted dedication to training is something that has always come naturally.
"I've always thought that the safest way to make sure you play well is to work hard," he said.
"If you work hard in training everything else that you do then comes naturally when you go onto the pitch.
"With regards to the gym and training, I just do everything at 100 per cent. I just want to do my best, whatever it may be.
"I've just moved out from home and there's plenty of time to switch off from rugby so whenever you are in training you just have to go at it. It's not that I think rugby 24/7 but when it's the right time, I focus."
It was with that outlook that McCall approached a switch to hooker when progressing through the Academy and, while he is happier back at prop, he says he enjoyed the exposure to a new position.
"It was a good experience," he added. "We just thought at the time it might get me into the squad a little bit quicker. It was a good experience but it just didn't work out the way we had planned.
"We thought it was better to go back to prop and just wait it out that little bit longer. I suppose it's a good string to your bow but playing prop is just something that's a bit more comfortable. I've played there all my life, since P3 in mini-rugby.
"Whether it's been tight-head or loosehead, it's just something that's more comfortable."
It's certainly shown for McCall and, having started the season on the outside looking in, he seems sure to be involved in Ulster festive fixtures for the first time.
"I'll have to be taking it a bit easier on the dinner plates then," he joked.
"The Connacht game on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, usually I'd be up at my auntie's house in Dungannon and staying up there. It'll be different this year, coming back down on my own but that's what players want. You want to be involved every week."
Playing like he has done of late, McCall looks set to be involved for some time to come.