Heineken Cup: Whitten making the hard yards for Ulster
Ian Whitten is a quiet, unassuming young man. Now 23, the Ulster Academy graduate has played 31 senior games, the first of those having been against Stade Francais in the 2008/09 Heineken Cup.
That leaves him very well placed to grasp what will be going through the mind of young full-back David McIlwaine as he prepares to face Biarritz Olympique on Sunday in what will be his first ever Heineken Cup outing.
Wallace High School past pupil Whitten has played some part of all six of Ulster’s competitive fixtures this season.
Only one of those half-a-dozen outings has seen him do a full shift, however, his 80 minutes of game time having been against Edinburgh in mid-September.
He has yet to score this term, but that doesn’t worry him unduly.
He never has been prolific, witness four tries in 31 Ulster appearances.
Whitten is honest in his summary of Ulster’s track record in France.
“It’s pretty awful,” he concedes.
He’s right; played 12, drawn one, lost 11. That hardly inspires confidence.
His follow-up line does, however. “As I see it we’ve got to win some time so why not this year?” is his rhetorical question.
“Let’s go there, try to get off to a good start and give it a rattle.
“We’ve made a good start to the season so our confidence ought to be high.”
Recalling his Ulster debut against Stade Francais, what stands out is just how physical French sides are.
“They’re in your face and they really hit hard. You’ve got to match that and get round it. We know that Biarritz are going to come out and really try to smash into us.
“We have to deal with that, play our plays and hopefully come through it,” he says.
He saw the second half of Biarritz’s 12-11 win against Bath last weekend and although the French were not overly impressive, Whitten knows they succeeded primarily because they were good at what they set out to do.
While it lacked the flair and fluency for which French sides once were famed, it was an efficient performance.
“Yachvili is a very important player for them. So is Harinordoquy. They’re their two biggest players.
“The rest of them were solid so they managed to grind out a good win. You have to hand that to them,” he concedes.
Reflecting on Ulster’s victory over Aironi, he continues: “I think we just wanted to go out and be positive.
“We wanted to try and move them about because when we watched videos we saw that Aironi tired when the Scarlets did that to them. Scarlets scored towards the end, so that’s what our goal was.
“Thankfully we were able to get four tries and the bonus point.”
Again his honesty shines through as he adds: “We probably could have had two or three more tries if we’d been a wee bit more accurate.”
Whitten is modest in assessing his own game.
“I’m happy enough. I’m getting a few opportunities, which is helping, but there are a few things I’d like to be doing better, like sticking hits a bit more.
“Apart from that I’m reasonably pleased — just glad of the opportunities,” he says. Like any midfielder, he knows players like himself depend on those up ahead gaining possession and halves getting the ball away.
“Our set pieces this season have been good and now Ruan (Pienaar) has come in and is doing a great job.
“All the new boys have settled in and they’re helping us. They’ve upped the physicality, we’re getting good quick ball from rucks and Ruan has been getting it away nice and quickly in the past couple of matches.”
He has no doubt that this is the strongest Ulster squad he has known since graduating for the Academy three years ago. “It’s great to have the experienced guys in there — all those international caps for the Springboks and Ireland means we can lean on those boys when it gets tough.
“They’re really helping in the pressure situations. Before, maybe, we were falling away a bit but this year we’re sticking in there a bit better, getting through and getting the result.”
That’s exactly what Ulster will aim to do on Sunday afternoon.