Stevenson: Ulster ready to go places
When, in mid-February, Ulster announced that Lewis Stevenson was on his way to Ravenhill, that was viewed as a highly significant capture.
Unable to make a breakthrough with Ulster — despite having represented Ireland at Schools, Under 19 and Under 21 levels — the second row forward moved across the Irish Sea to join Exeter Chiefs.
Such was the impact he made in the Championship that he was named in the Rugby Times’ National League One Team of the Season for 2009.
That summer he transferred to English Premiership big names, Harlequins.
The fact that he then chose to come back home says much for the way things had changed in the time since he departed.
“It’s the small changes that add up to a really massive difference in the Ulster set-up,” he says.
He cites nutrition plus strength and conditioning as examples of the improvememt, adding “everything just seems to be that little bit more professional”.
Stevenson believes the overall structure now in place is geared towards progress.
“Everything off the pitch is right and I think you can see that everything on the pitch now is starting to come good. That’s a really big change from when I was last here,” he says.
Since returning he has been highly impressed by the calibre of the emerging talent in the Ulster camp.
“With so many away at the World Cup the young guys coming through, I think, are ready to play and really ready to step up.
“The pre-season games have shown that they’re not out of place in the first team. They’re doing really well.
“Obviously squad depth is a massive thing. We’ve got a lot of experienced guys and a whole lot of youth here, too, so I think that’s a really good mix.
“These young guys are going to be so important and I think pre-season games have shown that we’re ready to play.
“We’re going out with a mentality that we’re going to take teams on and not sit back and worry about them so much but just play our own game.
“We know if we play our style that we’re going to hopefully come good and get some good performances.”
Coach Brian McLaughlin’s willingness to blood fledglings is in stark contrast to the 6ft 7ins giant’s own experience as an Ulster youngster.
“The opportunities are a lot better than they were when I was here before.
“My main reason for leaving was that I wasn’t getting playing opportunities; with Matt McCullough and Justin Harrison here you’d two international second rows so the opportunities just weren’t going to be there,” 17st 12lbs Stevenson points out.
As far as he is concerned, the decision to play in England when he did worked out well. Now he is hoping the choice to come home proves equally productive.
“I think just watching Ulster last year and seeing how well the team was performing in competing against Premiership sides and European sides made me want to be part of it — a team that was going somewhere and was going to win trophies and really build on last season,” he reveals.
“I just thought the time was right to come back.”
With former Exeter clubmate Dan Tuohy plus Tim Barker, Neil McComb and absent Springbok Johann Muller vying for two engine-room places this season he knows the standard and intensity of competition promises to be fierce.
He is not put off by that, however.
“It’s obviously tough but it’s a real positive thing to have that level of competition,” he reckons.
“We’re all pushing each other for places and you know that if you don’t perform there’s guys going to be coming in to take your place.
“I think that pressure’s good and it can only help Ulster.”