Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

RaboDirect Pro12: Spence pushes to be centre of attention

Nevin Spence says the competition for Ulster places is intense but insists 'it's good for us as individuals'

With so sharp a focus on the World Cup at the moment, some of those not involved in the New Zealand-hosted global showpiece could be forgiven for feeling somewhat flat.

Doubtless right now there are older hands coming to terms with the fact that their ship has sailed and will not be returning to the port where they are standing.

But there are younger men whose turn on the world stage has yet to come — players who, four years hence, will be there when the battle for the Webb Ellis Trophy is staged in England.

Ulster centre Nevin Spence, for example, is one who may very well figure in 2015.

The Irish midfield partnership of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll appears to be on its last legs and bright young things like Spence and his Ulster partners Darren Cave and fast-emerging Luke Marshall (pictured) are among those eyeing the forthcoming vacancies.

There will be others too; make no mistake.

Leinster's Fergus McFadden springs to mind. Currently he is in New Zealand stealing a march on his rivals from Ulster.

Back home, Spence's impressively mature view of current affairs is that the World Cup is providing him with an opportunity to play regularly for his province, gain experience, make an impact and thereby create a very strong case for his retention when the big names return.

Off field he is a quiet, pensive, modest — diffident almost — 21-year-old. Put him in an Ulster shirt, however, and in a manner reminiscent of the Incredible Hulk, he becomes six feet and 15 stones of proud, skilful, high-tempo aggression.

One tough cookie who appears to be as hard mentally as he is physically.

“Even with the guys away at the World Cup the competition for places in our squad is intense,” he points out.

“So it's going to be even more intense — really, really tough — when they get back.

“But that's the challenge and as players that's what you want. Competition for places is good for us as individuals, and as a team, because it improves our game.

“Competition keeps everybody on their toes; you know that you have to perform because if you don't you'll lose your place.

“At the end of the season it's going to be about how well the team has done. That's how we'll be measured.”

Spence takes real pride from playing for his native province, particularly with the desire now being to throw the ball about and play attractive rugby.

“Sometimes that's easier than others,” he points out. “Circumstances dictate where and when you're able to do it.

“But while you're not always able to play that way, it's what you want to do. And when that is your goal, you try to make it happen.

“That's what's going on at the moment and we're all enjoying it a lot.”

There were few opportunities to toss the ball about last Saturday afternoon in Viadana where the on-field temperature touched 35C.

Like his Ulster colleagues, Spence was physically drained at the end of that endurance test.

“I was absolutely shattered when I came off the pitch — and that's putting it a whole lot more politely than I did at the time,” he grins.

“It took a lot out of us, but we won again away from home.

“The guys weren't satisfied with that though. We were disappointed that we didn't manage to get the fourth try to give us a bonus point. I think that says something for where we're at.”

He respects tonight's opponents enormously, highlighting Cardiff Blues' proven commitment to running rugby played at pace.

“They've won their opening two games and taken a bonus from each so I think that says all that needs to be said about how Cardiff want to play and their ability to do it,” he offers.

“They're top of the league at the minute and having lost to us at home and away last season I'm sure they'll come here looking to prove a point.”

New Zealander Jared Payne makes his Ulster debut having been named at full-back in place of Adam D’Arcy in an otherwise unchanged back line from that which faced Aironi on Saturday.

Payne’s inclusion has been eagerly awaited by the Ravenhill faithful for, judging by his outstanding Super 15 performances prior to joining Ulster, he is a man in a rich vein of form.

Up front there are three changes. Declan Fitzpatrick replaces Paddy McAllister at loosehead, Lewis Stevenson takes over from Tim Barker as Dan Tuohy’s second row partner and Robbie Diack is named at No8, with captain Chris Henry switching to the openside flank.

Lock Mike McComish may make his first competitive Ulster appearance from the bench following his participation in some pre-season action.

Cardiff too have made four changes to the side they fielded last weekend.

Captain Paul Tito returns to the second row after injury, with Xavier Rush taking over at No8 from Andries Pretorius.

Ceri Sweeney returns at fly-half, with fit-again centre Casey Laulala reinstated after injury.

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