Stuart Olding targets Ulster and Ireland return after injury nightmare
Published 06/03/2014 | 01:31
It's Wednesday afternoon and Ireland are training at Shaw's Bridge. Stuart Olding might well have been there with them but, instead, he is 11 miles away at the Newtownards headquarters of Hughes Insurance, sponsors of the Ulster Rugby Academy.
Nor does Northern Ireland's biggest insurers' generosity towards the game end there; Ards RFC and Regent House Grammar School are beneficiaries, too, and both are represented at the gathering to hear from Olding.
It's quite an accolade to a young man who will be celebrating his 21st birthday next Tuesday.
Having represented Ireland at Under-18 and 20 levels, he graduated as a full international last June when he played against the USA in Houston.
Olding acquits himself admirably before his Newtownards audience, answering a stream of well-aimed questions with a ready smile and a refreshing degree of honesty.
And afterwards, in an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he is equally candid in talking about life since rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee while playing for the Ulster Ravens against Connacht Eagles at Deramore on November 15.
Reflecting on how the season now so cruelly truncated had begun for him he muses: "Things were going really well. I thought I'd played well in the four games, though it took a wee while to get fully into the swing of things.
"I had about 20 minutes, 30 minutes and then had 80 against the (Cardiff) Blues at full-back which was probably the best performance I've had in an Ulster shirt.
"Then this happened, which was unfortunate. It was the last play of the game and it was just a freak accident. I heard a big pop in my knee – nobody had even touched me but I knew before I hit the ground that my ACL had gone and my season was over.
"I sat in the dressing room sulking for 20 minutes after the game and just thought 'It's not going to get better overnight so there's not much point sitting here in a sulk'. So I had a shower, went home, put ice on my knee and got myself prepared as best I could for the operation.
"Nick Williams gave me a good bit of advice before I went for the scan – 'Expect the worst and then you can't be disappointed'. I knew what I'd done before I saw the surgeon, so he just confirmed it. I'd surgery a week later – 13 weeks ago today."
He has remained impressively positive, viewing this enforced time out as providing opportunities in other ways.
"I'm just using this as time to get my body right," he says. "I've got most of a full season to get bigger and stronger and get any other niggles I've had out of the way."
In addition to the fact he shares a house with old BRA schoolmate Iain Henderson, he is in constant contact with the other Ulster players.
"I gym with them and go out for lunch and coffees with them," he reveals. "Nothing has really changed there – the only difference is that I'm not in the team meetings or the pitch sessions.
"And we have a Dinner Club so every month two people organise dinner for the whole squad and everyone goes out to that, so I look forward to those sorts of things."
He admits, though, that his first time back at Ravenhill on match-night hit him hard.
It was the Heineken Cup game against Treviso two and a half weeks before Christmas.
"I was on crutches and I was doing some PR in the main lounge and up in the boxes. And then you hear the crowd start to sing 'Stand up for the Ulstermen' and you see Johann leading the boys out, it's pretty tough to take.
"I think that gave me the motivation to go away, do my rehab and really give some thought to where I want to be when I come back.
"I don't want just to be as good as I was before this happened – I want to be a far, far better rugby player as a result of this experience. And I think I'll achieve that," he says with real conviction.
"I think my appreciation of the game has been enhanced massively already. I've been on the laptop, in the video-room. And watching the games I'm thinking 'This is on' or 'That's on'. So hopefully, when I start playing again and I see a defensive set-up I'll be able to make the right call and things will come off.
"Because I'm injured doesn't mean I have a lot less work to do; I've actually got more work to do, it's just that it's different."
Right now it's all about working with the Ulster staff and adhering to a programme designed to have him ready for a full pre-season ahead of 2014-15. With a World Cup coming in autumn 2015, clearly he has goals.
"People keep telling me that I've got youth on my side and they're right," Olding says. "Maybe if I'd got this injury 12 or 13 years on I wouldn't come back from it, but I'm still only 20 and I've still got the drive and the hunger to play.
"I'd love to be in the World Cup, yeah, but first things first – let's just get over this injury, start playing for Ulster again and, if that goes well, then hopefully get a call up to the Irish squad."
One imagines Mark Anscombe and Joe Schmidt will be very happy to play their parts in making this remarkable young man's vision become reality.