Local players are our real stars: Schifcofske
Bryn Cunningham is almost ready to return to action following the injury he picked up eight weeks ago in the ill-fated Magners League curtain-raiser against Newport Gwent Dragons.
But there is an adage that possession is nine-tenths of the law and Cunningham knows he faces a battle if he is to oust Clinton Schifcofske who, in his absence, has made the Ulster number 15 jersey his own.
The 28-year-old Australian of Polish descent has emerged as a real find and is relishing life as an Ulster player.
“It’s not about individuals. It helps when the team’s playing well. So it’s great at the moment. I think everybody is enjoying playing,” he said.
His background notwithstanding, he believes that having so many Ulster-born and bred players in the squad is a real plus.
“Our best players this season have been our Irish players. You take Willie Faloon, Chris Henry, Darren Cave, Ian Whitten, Ian Humphreys — they have all been excellent,” he said.
“Our defence is really solid. Darren Cave is a terrific player in that respect. He knows how to read situations.
“I know we let Leinster in for a late try the other night, but I think that was because we’d just taken our foot off the gas right at the end. Up until then our defence had been really excellent.
“I think defence always is a good indication of the spirit in a team. When you see everybody working, inside and outside, that tells you a lot about what’s going on in that side.”
He acknowledges the role of the two wide men in any back three, suggesting that a full-back “is only as good as his wingers”.
“We’re lucky because we have great depth in that position. Before he was injured, Simon (Danielli) was playing really well. Then Andrew (Trimble) came in and he has been great — really geting back to form. And Timoci (Nagusa) has been one of our best players since the start of the season,” he said.
“We all seem to be working well for each other, which is great. That’s the way it has to be in any unit of the team.”
Schifcofske cites Ulster’s game-management as being another key ingredient this year, extolling Humphreys for his part there.
“I think Ian has been spectacular in that department. He takes a lot of pressure off by knowing when to kick to the corners, for example. A team takes real encouragement when they have somebody who keeps taking them forward like that,” is his analysis.
Having come from a rugby league background, his no-nonsense approach is to get the job done, be it in training or in a match situation.
“Training with Ulster now is very much a case of get in, get it done and get out again. Great structure. The coach deserves the credit for that. They really have tightened everything up there.
“It’s the same players as last year, but you wouldn’t recognise this as being the same team. So full credit to Brian (McLaughlin) and the coaching staff for that.”
He highlights the camaraderie in the camp as being another huge plus.
“You can see the delight after a score, for example. Everybody is in offering congratulations.
“Like defence, I think that says a lot about the mood in any side. There’s a great spirit and that’s what you see when there’s something to celebrate,” he says.
“And I think there’s a really good mix of young and older players, too. And with everybody getting on so well together, that’s another very positive thing.”
Asked how far he thinks this side might go, Schifcofske replies: “It’s hard to say. I know it’s very cliched but it is about taking one game at a time. That’s where we are at the moment — just taking each game as it comes.
“I think we’re also learning from a few mistakes we’ve made in a couple of games where we haven’t performed that well.
“We have come back after those games and turned it around in the next one, which is always a good sign. I think when we’re able to do that it’s proof we’re heading in the right direction.”
He points to the most recent example of just such a turnaround, comparing the disappointment of the Murrayfield defeat by Edinburgh with the following week’s performance which saw Leinster put to the sword by Ulster for the first time in five and a half years.
“From the first minute against Leinster things were right. We were into that match straight away,” said Schifcofske.
“But that isn’t something you can tell in a changing room beforehand. I’ve seen situations where everything seemed to be right, but then when you get out there you find something different.
“I don’t think you know until the ball is kicked off. But once it is, you quickly sense what sort of game it’s going to be.”
And he savours playing at Ravenhill.
“I’ve guys back in Australia telling me about playing in front of crowds of 20,000 or 30,000. But I know that the atmosphere created by 10,000 packed into Ravenhill and singing their heads off is better,” enthuses Schifcofske.