Robbie Diack was a player singled out by coach Mark Anscombe at the end of Ulster’s pre-season work.
The Kiwi was highly impressed by what he had seen of the now-Irish-qualified South African in training and in the warm-up matches against Bayonne, Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons.
Typically, Anscombe did not hesitate to let Diack know that he admired his skills-level, valued his commitment and liked his attitude. Nor was his praise mere words, for when it came to naming his starting line-up for the PRO12 opener against Glasgow in Belfast on the last day of August, Diack got the number six jersey.
He picked up a dead leg in the 18-10 win against the Scots, but nevertheless was named to start at No 8 against Ospreys in Swansea the following weekend.
He didn’t make it, though. Indeed, having aggravated the injury in training, he was an absentee from the first team for the whole of September and October.
“That was frustrating,” he admits. “I’d started off the season well and then, unfortunately, got injured against Glasgow. With the depth of the squad now, others were able to step up and perform. You know what I’m talking about — you’ve seen the likes of Nick Williams, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Mike McComish, Iain Henderson all do really well.
“The way things are now, if you get an injury you have to wait to get back into the side and with the other guys playing well that made it very difficult for me. They were winning games, playing well, so why would anyone leave them out?
“They were performing well on the field and if you perform, you keep your place. It has been very fair that way this season.”
Finally, on November 2, he returned for the home date with Edinburgh, since when he has missed only one of Ulster’s last nine matches.
Stephen Ferris’s injury-enforced absence and Henderson’s deployment in the second row from which Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy and Lewis Stevenson were missing, created a vacancy on the blindside. Diack was delighted to fill it.
“I’m enjoying the game-time more than anything else,” he says. “Just to be involved has been fantastic. We’ve got a few good wins and it has been great to be part of those, especially at Ravenhill where the crowd has been awesome.
“To get a run of games on the trot and being able to keep the same position has been really good for me. My confidence is up at the moment and I’ve really appreciated being given the opportunity to continue.
“That’s crucially important. You’ve got things you need to work on and the best place to do that is on the field, in a match situation. After matches you get some constructive criticism from the coach and the players and the other coaching staff around you, so you’re learning from that. And there’s no better way to fix a mistake than in a game the following Friday night.
“We’re keeping the same sequences, we’re learning our plays together and to play with one another so that has been brilliant.”
After last season’s disappointment at not being able to break into the Ferris, Henry, Pedrie Wannenburg first-choice back row, Anscombe’s arrival during the summer gave Diack the heart to try again.
“I just said to myself ‘Ok, we start from a clean slate — new coach, different pre-season’. From day one I worked hard in pre-season and I moved on,” is his description of the summer.
“I’ve been fortunate with the game time I’ve been given and I have benefited from that in a big way. I just want to keep my spot in the team and keep on playing like I have been.”
He missed Ulster’s first three 2012-13 Heineken Cup matches, but came off the bench for the final nine minutes against Northampton at Ravenhill and then did an excellent one-hour shift against Glasgow last weekend.
His deployment against Castres underlines his growing status and his words reinforce his and the team’s desire to see this job through to completion.
“It’s great to have qualified, that’s very positive. But our goal is not achieved yet. We want a home quarter-final and that’s why this weekend in France is massive,” he says.
“Castres have a brilliant home record, so we have to be at our best to compete with these guys. They’ve got a huge forward pack — they’re very powerful — and they’ve got very quick backs.
“They are at home and, as with all these French teams, you’re never sure who they will pick.
“But what we do know is that they’re a totally different team at home, so we’re going to have to pick our game big time.
“They won’t want to let down their supporters so I think this is going to be a massive task for us.
“We know that if we’re to get a win we’re going to have to be at our best.
“There has been no mention of a bonus point. If we get to the stage where we have three tries with 70 minutes gone, maybe we’ll think about it then,” he adds.