Heineken Cup: Bell crucial in helping make case for the Ulster defence
But for injuries, Jonathan Bell’s career with Northampton Saints would have lasted longer and probably would have been more illustrious.
Even so, he spent sufficient time there to appreciate just how much rugby means to the Franklin’s Gardens club’s passionate supporters.
“It’s a bit like Leicester — huge support, huge tradition,” explains the former Ulster and Ireland three-quarter, adding that Northampton have a sense of underachievement not having added to their 2000 Heineken Cup success.
Recalling his time as a player there Bell said: “I can remember at one stage we went into Church’s Shoes. They were our sponsors so we went to the factory and were shown round.
“There was a man who literally spent the whole day pulling a press down to put a sole onto a shoe. That was what he did all day. His week — how he felt, his mood — was dependent on how the Saints went. He had posters of all the players up around his desk.
“That brought it home to me just what it meant to the town. Northampton’s a pretty working-class town, but it’s a rugby town. They love their rugby and they support the Saints vehemently.”
Bell has been an important figure in his native province’s progress this season, not least for his work in tightening up the Ulster defence.
While he is modest about his role in that area, it is significant that skipper Rory Best singled out Bell’s work with the players in that regard as meriting particular recognition.
“He deserves a lot of credit for that,” the Ulster captain said.
Bell’s view of defence is: “Everything in the game is crucial, from somebody clearing a ruck to somebody relieving pressure to somebody making a tackle, everyone has to do their job.
“Defence, to me, epitomises the attitude and the camaraderie that you have in a squad because you have to knuckle down and you have to work exceptionally hard.
“The best defences in the world have good systems and different systems for different things, but at the end of the day the players have to make the decisions and they have to work hard because if you have a great system but you aren’t prepared to do that you’ll be found out,” he warns.
In illustrating his point he highlights the firepower in the Northampton back line.
“When you look at this weekend you look at the likes of (Chris) Ashton and (Ben) Foden picking up lines inside 10, picking up lines off nine. Those lines and those gaps are only filled because people are working off the ball incredibly hard.
“If you get lazy and you switch off those holes are there and they’ll pick them up. That’s the challenge for us — to be in the moment and make sure we don’t switch off.
“Northampton are very deliberate in the way they play — and I’m not putting them down in saying that. They’re very, very physical; they pride themselves in their scrum, their maul, their set piece. They’re target-orientated.
“And then they try to gain momentum, speed the quality of the possession up and get the likes of Ashton and Foden running exceptional lines to try and find lazy defenders and try to find someone who’s a little slow in getting off the ground, so a little bit of space opens up.
“That’s the challenge for us. Can we match them physically? Can we out-work them and out-think them?
“The nature of the game now is that it’s all go so you can’t afford to be off the boil for one minute. You’ll get your rest whenever there’s a break in play but until that happens you’ve got to keep working.”
Seems Ulster are ready for a double-shift tomorrow.