Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Longwell confident of Ulster’s progress

Edinburgh have beaten Ulster twice already this season. But big Gary Longwell is banking on Brian McLaughlin’s men reversing that trend this evening in the Heineken Cup at Ravenhill (8.00).

The man who served Ulster so admirably and so loyally from 1991 to 2005 is convinced Ulster rugby is again heading in the right direction.

And he’s calling on them to reproduce the heroics they displayed against Bath in the autumn.

“Beating Bath was a massive result. It was a real throwback to the old days, a performance of real quality, passion and belief.

“As an old forward it did my heart good and it showed that it’s the way forward.

“And as good as the Scots are we certainly have the beating of them.”

Ravenhill is no longer the fortress of old, but that could be changing as both Bath and Stade Francais found to their cost.

Longwell, now a Ravenhill spectator on Friday nights, senses a change of mood in the old stadium.

“It’s got to the stage where teams again hate coming here. With the new stand there is a new-found confidence and this season that’s reflected on the pitch as well.”

Ulster have moved on from last season and big Gary can’t speak highly enough of coach McLaughlin, who has brought a pragmatism to the job that wasn’t always there in the past.

“Brian deserves great credit. He came into the job with first-hand knowledge.

“He gets on well with everyone and he’s always prepared to listen and he’s there for all the right reasons.”

Longwell (38), made his Ireland debut against Japan in Dublin in 2000 and was part of the 2003 World Cup squad in Australia.

His last Irish appearance was against Italy in Dublin on March 20, 20004.

“I count myself fortunate to have had such a lengthy career and I certainly have no regrets.

“I remember playing on the same university side as David Humphreys and a lad called Joel Callaghan.

“He was so unbelievably talented and but for injuries would have played for the Lions.

“That’s how good he was so how can I have any regrets.”

Now head of the Ulster Rugby Academy, he revels in the day to day involvement of overseeing young players progress from the Academy to the full Ulster squad which now has as many as 15 former Academy pupils on its books.

Current Ulster captain Chris Henry, Willie Faloon, Ian Whitten and David Pollock are just some of those who have recently made the transition with the greatest of ease.

“Ulster fans want to see an Ulster side comprising of Ulster players with possibly two world-class players for good measure and that has to be the way forward.”

Speaking like a true forward, Longwell, one of the most affable men in the sport, says Ulster rugby is looking forward to the return of Rory Best.

“His loss to the side is incalculable. I can’t think of a more inspiring captain.

“In the professional game they are crucial and they don’t come any better,” he said. In his role as Head of the Academy, he makes a point of seeing as many club games over the weekend as is humanly possible.

When the curtain eventually came down on a glorious Ulster career, he found it difficult making the transition from player to fan. But that soon changed once he became involved with the Academy.

Now he looks forward to his Friday nights, cheering on Ulster but all the time keeping a close eye on those who have progressed from Academy status to the Ulster squad.

“I’m now a very passionate Ulster supporter who badly wants the side to do well, but I’m that wee bit more relaxed now, more relaxed than I was in the early days.

“I really want to see Ulster do well when I can see at first hand the work of Brian McLaughlin, David Humphreys, Neil Doak and Jeremy Davidson.

“They put so much time and effort into what they are doing and they set a great example for what is a young, but very promsing squad of young players.”

Universally popular, the gentle giant continues to be a wonderful servant, indeed ambassador for both Ulster and Irish rugby.

The infectious enthusiasm that was his trademark as a player shows little sign of waning.

Rest assured come this evening he’ll be making his voice heard.

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