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Focused Stuart Olding is aiming to stake a claim ahead of tonight's Ulster clash with Zebre

By Michael Sadlier

Even in the afterglow of his marvellous competitive comeback last Saturday, Ulster’s Stuart Olding is in reflective mood as he sifts through the way things have now worked out for both himself and his closest friend in the squad ahead of tonight’s first home league game of the new season.

For Olding, last season was pretty much all about ploughing the lonely furrow of rehabilitating his ruptured anterior cruciate ligament – he had suffered the injury playing for the Ulster Ravens last November – while his flatmate Iain Henderson got on with playing both for Ulster and Ireland.

But now the tables have turned and a fit-again Olding is having to offer sympathy and understanding to Henderson, who is to undergo a hip operation.

Though Henderson could be back again in a few months, there is an understanding between the two former Belfast Royal Academy pupils which has been forged through the peaks and troughs already experienced as young professional players.

"He looked after me in my first few weeks so I'll now try to repay the favour," says 21-year-old Olding, who is widely regarded as a huge talent.

"He would come in after training and say, 'I was soaked out on the pitch' and I'd say, 'I was dry in the gym all by myself'," the versatile back says with a smile at dredging up some of the memories of being sidelined.

"Iain was very good to me and it's absolutely terrible that this has happened to him."

Which leads us onto more discussion about Olding's time away and how he managed on the slow journey back to fitness which has clearly been a successful one after the eye-catching breaks and terrific footwork he showed at Parc y Scarlets, though for all that he has been surprisingly benched for tonight's game with Zebre as Luke Marshall gets a start ahead of him.

"Ten months was a long time out but, to be honest, it has flown in because I've just been so keen to get back," he says before noting that his surgery went well which further aided his recovery, even though he was unable to run for four months.

Naturally there were low points and, apart from the banter with his flatmate, he sought counsel from older players who were going through the same process.

"I spoke to Stevie (Ferris), Paddy McAllister and Paddy Wallace, all boys who were out for a long time and they gave me advice and motivation to come back bigger and better.

"The strangest thing, though, was not doing something that you have done every week for so long and just watching all the guys play and train.

"Then while I'd be watching them I'd get called away to train on my own, so that was pretty lonely," Olding admits.

He certainly hit the ground running last weekend with several mesmerising line breaks to his name with one scything run nearly capping his return with a try, though at least that particular burst still ended well as Dan Tuohy was put over for Ulster's second of the afternoon.

"The pitch and weather suited my style of rugby," Olding says though his all-round skill means he can play out-half and full-back as well as in midfield where he favours the inside centre position.

"It was a dry ball so there was plenty of running and with the heat it was quite tough. It was my first 80 minutes in 10 months so I found it difficult and was blowing a bit but that is to be expected.

"Playing with the guys around me, though, made it easier to be back and to take the opportunities when I got them," he modestly adds.

Even though tonight will only be his 21st appearance for Ulster should he, as expected, enter the fray at some point, Olding already has an Ireland cap to his name – which he won on the 2013 tour against the USA and where he worked with interim Ulster coach Les Kiss – and, clearly, his goal is to become part of Joe Schmidt's long-term plans at inside centre.

"First and foremost I want to get back playing better than I was before and that will hopefully lead to a starting position at Ulster permanently," he says and with Marshall and potentially also Darren Cave also eyeing up the same position, the competition will clearly be fairly intense at inside centre.

He is, of course already on Schmidt's radar and breaking into the national set-up is an aspiration which is achievable.

"Hopefully I can be involved in the next Irish camp leading into the November series.

"And it would also be brilliant to be involved in the World Cup next year..." and then he stops himself from going any further, "but I'm not thinking too far ahead, I just want to be focused on this week."

So speaks a young player who has learned much already from the school of damaging knocks.

Belfast Telegraph

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