Paddy Wallace’s return to action after a seven-week lay-off following thumb tendon surgery could hardly be more timely.
Ulster are at critical junctures in their PRO12 and Heineken Cup campaigns and Ireland’s squad for the RBS Six Nations Championship will be announced at the start of next week.
At 32 he is the sole survivor of the Ulster side which, in January 2004, beat Leicester 33-0 in the European Cup at Ravenhill.
“A very long time ago,” he muses when reminded of his status. “And there’s nothing that bears any relation to this week.”
Like everybody else in the Ulster camp he knows Leicester are coming to Belfast determined not to leave without at least a bonus point. Ulster, of course, went to Welford Road with similar intentions, only to be thwarted.
“We went over there and were unfortunate — and probably disappointed — to come away without anything from the game so they’ll be coming here to get something out of it like we were at Welford Road.
“We have to stop that and first and foremost win the game,” says the inside centre who, with 162 Ulster appearances, is Friday night’s hosts’ most capped player.
Wallace is delighted to have returned to a squad buoyed up by the availability of almost all of its marquee players and producing rugby commensurate with that fact — witness try-scoring bonus point victories in four of the past five outings.
“It’s great to be back and be back in a winning squad,” he says. “That drives you on to get back and it was always a target of mine to get back for the Heineken Cup.”
To that end he really pushed himself during his period of rehabilitation.
“I’ve worked very hard on the strengthening and conditioning side of things, so hopefully the hand will be up to it. It certainly was last week,” is the description of events during his time out and the 25-minute run he had against Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
As well as enabling him to prove a physiological point, last Friday night’s work-out in the Scottish capital was beneficial psychologically.
“Just getting the hand on the ball, trying to grip again and getting that sort of strength is going to come only with match practice so it was nice getting that half-an-hour. It probably did have a confidence-boosting effect on me,” he explains.
Asked if there had been any misgivings on his part about embracing the physicality of the game after an absence such as he has just endured he replies: “No, I don’t think so.
“I think you just leave those behind and get on with it, play as you would and hope that nothing goes wrong. If it does, that’s life, that’s rugby. But I don’t think you can go in with that worried attitude.”
He is confident that he is ready, mentally and physically, for Friday night’s challenge. He is confident, too, that Ulster are good enough the job.
“I just thing that the players we have are capable of doing it and are a match for any side. Obviously we’ve looked at Leicester for opportunities we can exploit to get the best out of our team.
“We’ve trained with purpose and hopefully we can exploit some of the chinks we’ve seen on video,” Wallace says.