Tuohy and Ulster out to lay down a marker
Had fate dealt him a kinder hand, Dan Tuohy might well have been in Queenstown tonight as a member of Declan Kidney’s Irish World Cup squad rather than playing for Ulster at Ravenhill against Glasgow Warriors in the first RaboDirect Pro12 fixture.
In June 2010 the twice-capped lock marked his international debut by scoring a try against the All Blacks within seconds of joining the fray as a 36th minute replacement for Mick O’Driscoll.
Two weeks later he got his second run, against Australia.
While that famous touchdown against the Kiwis made it a particularly memorable debut for Tuohy, it was not his first grand entrance; in 2007 he marked his bow for Gloucester with a man-of-the-match performance against London Irish.
While those are great memories, at this stage — following a series of injuries — the normally injury-free second row’s focus is on steering clear of further problems, re-establishing himself as an Ulster regular and helping them build on the foundations they laid down last season.
If, as a result, he is asked to answer Ireland’s call at some future date, he will be happy to go. But he is both candid and philosophical in admitting that luck plays a part, his own chance having come when others were injured.
Reflecting on June 2010 he muses: “That seems longer than a year ago now.
“That time round a few guys got injured and I got my chance with Leo (Cullen) and Paul (O’Connell) not being there.”
Tuohy knows the importance of a winning start tonight against Glasgow, describing that as being “absolutely crucial”. And he is confident that even with nine players absent on World Cup duty, Ulster are capable of serving up an attractive as well as winning brand of football in the opening weeks of the new campaign. The prospect excites him.
“I was very impressed by the boys on Friday evening (against Harlequins). Their willingness to play from almost anywhere and match and beat — in every department — what was a really skilful and experienced Harlequins side bodes well for this weekend,” he enthuses.
“Hopefully come next Tuesday we’ll be talking about how good we were against Glasgow.”
Questioned as to the origins of this attractive, new, attack-minded approached, Tuohy replies that it has been as a result of the desire emanating from the coaches and players alike.
“I think it’s a bit of both. We’re working ever so hard on skills and trying to give the boys confidence to play and to express themselves,” he explains.
“If a mistake does happen there’s no finger-pointing because if you don’t make those mistakes and you don’t push those boundaries on 50/50s and play on that edge you’re never going to score tries and you’re never going to be a top team because that’s what top teams do.
“We’re trying to instill that and we’ve got some extremely exciting backs who can play some seriously good rugby. They’re a serious bunch of boys and then us donkeys up front just try to facilitate them as best we can,” he smiles.
Whilst the loss of nine international players to the World Cup — five to Ireland, two to South Africa and one to both New Zealand and Scotland — leaves sizeable gaps in the Ulster ranks, Tuohy sees their absence as offering an opportunity for others to shine.
Tellingly, he is confident they will grasp it.
“These young lads, especially those in the backs — your Gilroys, your Spences, your Paddy Jacksons and Luke Marshall — are seriously good players who hopefully can be at Ulster for a long time.
“These guys are going to go an extremely long way,” he predicts with total conviction.
Last term’s achievements — hitting the pre-season targets of making the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and Magners League (as was) play-offs — means Ulster have raised the bar for themselves.
But this year, unlike last, they have not gone public in stating their objectives.
“Last year was a sort of a breakthrough,” he says.
And the reason for it?
“I just think we started to realise how good a team we are and can be. But we need to do that consistently,” he reckons.
“From what I’m hearing, we’re expected to be in the mix when it comes down to it this year.
“Nobody wants to be second-best, so we’re striving — on and off the pitch as well, with every member of the staff — to create that philosophy and winning mentality throughout the squad. That is infectious and almost impossible to get rid of when it’s there.
“It’s just something that becomes ingrained within players — that self-belief within the squad that when the chips are down and you’re not playing well, which is going to happen, you’re still going to come out on top.”
Call that a marker for 2011/12.