Ricky Andrew praises the Ulster set-up
Published 19/12/2013 | 01:30
Countless column inches have been devoted in recent months to tales of the latest rugby superstar allegedly set to sign a mega-rich deal with one of the French giants.
While Ulster's squad have so far remained impervious to Gallic advances, one of Mark Anscombe's charges has already experienced life on the other side of the English Channel.
Full-back Ricky Andrew spent one season in the academy of current Top 14 champions Castres while on a year abroad during a French and Spanish degree at Queen's University and credits his southern sojourn as a crucial period in his rugby development.
Ahead of tomorrow's return to RaboDirect PRO12 action against Zebre, Andrew said: "I spent a full year at Castres Olympique and it was a very important season for me.
"I had just come back from a bad injury, I had broken my ankle and damaged ligaments, so the physicality over there really helped me get back into it.
"I played a lot of centre that season so that was a good experience as well.
"As well as the rugby, I got to work on the language, help some of the boys with their English and build up contacts so it was a great year."
With another year of his studies to complete, Andrew returned to Northern Ireland to continue in the Ulster Academy, turning out for Ballymena after his time at Queen's came to an end.
Indeed, he went on to make a bit of club history for the Braidmen when, alongside brothers Joel and John, he became part of the first trio of brothers to represent the club in a league game.
His family's shared enthusiasm for the sport has been something Andrew has enjoyed right from their parent's front garden to the All-Ireland League.
"We've always trained together, starting with working on our line-out lifts in the front yard as kids, so I was well used to having them there by the time we got to Ballymena," he commented.
"It's always nice to play with them and you get that kind of thing at clubs all over the place. It's a family game.
"My younger brother John is in the Ulster Academy now as well so hopefully he'll be getting some games for the Ravens soon too."
Ulster's second string is an area where Andrew has excelled of late, scoring the crucial bonus-point try in last weekend's British and Irish Cup victory over Ayr.
The victory was an important statement for the A side following a disappointing reverse in the first game of their double-header in Scotland and Andrew was pleased to play his part.
"We had a tough loss the week before so it was good to come out and show a bit more fight.
"Hopefully that can give us a bit of momentum for the rest of the group."
His score in the game at Deramore Park came following strong work from the fit-again centre Paddy Wallace, with Andrew quick to praise the 30-times-capped Ireland international.
"It was all set up by the master himself, Paddy Wallace, who can always just create something out of nothing," said the 24-year-old.
"It's great to play with someone like him because you can learn so much."
Whether its languages or backline moves, Andrew appears an ever-willing student and continued: "For a young player, this is the top place if you want to learn and for myself I'll always be trying to pick things up off Jared (Payne).
"You look at how Gilly (Craig Gilroy) and Mikey Allen have come along from playing with Andrew Trimble and Tommy (Bowe) and you can see that this is the place to be."
Tomorrow night against Zebre, Andrew will be lining up alongside such established stars keen to make another positive impression on head coach Anscombe.
"Every player wants to play as many games as possible but when you're a younger guy you're looking to show you can play.
"At full-back it's strange because I might not get the ball and then the coaches could say you haven't done much or they could kick every ball to me and have it go great.
"Hopefully at the end I'll have my hand stuck up for more games."
It was in this fixture last season that Andrew scored his first Ulster try, while he also started against the Italians in the bonus-point win last month, but he expects a testing outing in front of a sold-out Ravenhill.
He added: "It was a nice moment last year to get the try and it was a good game for us.
"We played them away not so long ago so we know what to expect and it will be tough.
"They're a very physical side and they have some really top class players."