Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Stevenson aims to hold on to starting place in Ulster's second-row

It’s lunchtime at Newforge and, well, things are a bit different than normal.

For starters there is a group of young fans milling about while also in the room are several sizeable tables all covered with neatly arranged Ulster shirts waiting to be signed.

It looks like the squad are shortly about to undergo a marathon autograph session but none of this seems to faze Lewis Stevenson.

Even the bizarre sight of a man tramping through the room in an oversized costume to promote a well-known brand of pizzas — there is a photo-shoot for some of the squad outside — has little impact on the 28-year-old second row.

Right now, on the playing side of things, he is where he wants to be. He will make his 26th competitive appearance for Ulster in Friday’s opening PRO12 clash with Glasgow Warriors and there is no doubting he wants to make the most of it.

“You’ve got to respect your opportunity and make the most of it,” is how the hard-working Stevenson views it.

“It’s a privilege and an honour to take the field in the first game and a lot of responsibility comes with it.”

He actually looks set to get a bit of a run in the team while Dan Tuohy remains out of action — the Ireland player is believed to be another couple of weeks away from being available — and this has given Stevenson the opportunity to show new coach Mark Anscombe that he has the hunger, desire and skills set to offer something more than mere back-up.

Last May, he got on for Tuohy in the last minute of the Heineken Cup final in a game that was already long gone, something that has helped fire him to make the most of any chances that come his way and it just so happens that after some decent pre-season showings he has his opportunity in the first league game.

“If I don’t make the best of the opportunity I’ve got then Dan will just come straight back in and play,” is how Stevenson explains his current situation.

He knows it will be a mighty ask to keep Tuohy out, but he is focused and determined to make the right impression and do what he does best; be professional and committed to playing as much as possible in a high-pressure environment — just as he did during his time in England with Exeter and Harlequins.

“That pressure is always there but it’s good and it brings out the best in you,” he says. “It’s tough, but it’s all about enjoying the challenge and the pressure.

“When you’re not under pressure you tend to sit in a comfort zone and don’t push yourself, whereas I know I’ve got to go out and give 100% every game otherwise there are guys there only too willing to come in and take my place,” he adds.

Anscombe has challenged him to up his game and Stevenson is hoping to deliver.

When the subject matter turns to the Kiwi coach, Stevenson is quick to highlight the technical aspect which has been added to the squad’s workload.

“Mark’s fairly black and white, he calls things how he sees them and he’s added a real clarity to a lot of aspects,” he says. “Hopefully the technical side of things which he’s brought has added something which will make a big difference.”

And all will soon be revealed on Friday when Ulster really need to get the ball rolling with a win.

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