They say it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Ulster coach Mark Anscombe’s paraphrasing of the proverb is that “one guy’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.”
And there are a few of his players who, in view of the pre-season cookie having crumbled in their favour, can relate to the adage.
Scrum-half Michael Heaney and loose-head prop Callum Black are two who have benefited enormously from others’ unavailability. They have seized their opportunities and as a result, look like being in the team to face Glasgow Warriors at Ravenhill in Friday night’s RaboDirect PRO12 opener (7.05pm).
Heaney’s path to a place in the team has been cleared by Ruan Pienaar’s involvement with the Springboks in the Four Nations Rugby Championship, in tandem with Paul Marshall’s absence following surgery to his right elbow in the wake of Ireland’s three-match end-of-season trip to New Zealand.
Black’s inclusion at number one has been as a result of the thumb injury which ruled Tom Court out of that tour, followed by Paddy McAllister’s knee problem — a torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament which he suffered at the start of August during Ulster’s training camp in the south of France.
Heaney was frank in his assessment of last Friday’s 24-20 victory over Newcastle Falcons, admitting: “I got a good opportunity with Ruan and Paul both being away and hopefully I can keep stepping up and keep on producing the goods.”
Explaining what it has meant to him, he said: “I love every minute of playing in front of a good home crowd at Ravenhill and hopefully I can get another start on Friday night.”
With Heaney having performed so well in Ulster’s three pre-season friendlies, everything at this stage suggests that he will. And that he will be involved for some time to come, for certainly Pienaar is not going to be around until just before Ulster’s Heineken Cup bow against Castres in Belfast on October 12.
That means that even if Marshall is reinstated, as things stand at this stage Heaney would be favourite to provide the back-up from the bench.
Similarly, Black has moved up in the pecking order as a result of McAllister’s misfortune which means that even though Court, when fit, is likely to re-emerge as first-choice loose-head, the prop who has deputised so well in the absence of both should at least make the match-day sheets as a replacement.
The 26-year-old recognises the fact that fate has dealt him a good hand on this occasion and he is determined to make the most of it. Coach Anscombe singled him out as being “probably our stand-out player in pre-season” and having had to swim against the tide in pursuit of recognition in the past, Black was understandably pleased with the accolade.
“It’s nice to get compliments. I’ve had a good pre-season fitness-wise and I’ve been working on my game,” he said.
“It’s great to get three-in-a-row under my belt. Getting a run of games is a big help so it’s up to me to make the most of that. You grow as a player the more you play. If you’re in the side week in, week out, you get more familiar with the players around you and you gel in the team.
“But I know I’ve got a lot to work on going into the start of the competitive season. The three games I’ve had have been great; I’ve had things to work on every week and I’ve enjoyed that,” Black added.
He is enjoying partnering tight-head colleagues of the calibre of Declan Fitzpatrick and John Afoa, too.
“You’re talking about international-class props. Declan, who played for Ireland against the All Blacks in the summer, started against Newcastle and then John — a World Cup winner last year — came on. We learn from those we play beside so it’s great to have guys like that around you,” he said.