Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Ian Humphreys is homing in on glorious chapter with Ulster

Ian Humphreys says Ulster's stars are desperate to give their fans reason to be cheerful following a summer of discontent
Ian Humphreys says Ulster's stars are desperate to give their fans reason to be cheerful following a summer of discontent

Before we get down to the serious business, and mention brother David, there is some banter to be had and newly returned Ian Humphreys is well up for the queries about his age when compared to most of his team-mates in last Friday's narrow defeat to Exeter.

"Yes, it's pretty depressing to see all those 19 and 20-year-olds running past you," laughed the 32-year-old Humphreys who is back for his second stint with Ulster after bidding farewell to London Irish – who have incidentally just signed Tom Court – following two seasons with the Premiership club.

"It's frightening being the second oldest in the squad," he added.

"And I was pretty pleased to find that Roger Wilson is the oldest while Bestie (Rory Best) is three or four months younger than me."

If last Friday's opening friendly is anything to go by then it would appear that he is still in pretty good nick after nailing all three conversions and providing a trademark defence-splitting pass for Rory Scholes to run through a gap for his impressive second score.

Still, as Humphreys is rightly keen to point out, it's a bit early to be passing much judgment on his form particularly after he got so little game time in his closing months at struggling Irish.

Which brings us neatly to his return to Belfast and, of course, the departure of his older brother David who, despite being part of sealing the deal in the first place, has now headed the opposite way leaving his pivotal position as Director of Rugby at Ulster to now do the same job at Gloucester. You wonder if the brothers have actually engineered it in such a way that they will avoid each other and Ian smiles at the analogy which he was probably expecting anyway.

"He's got to do what he thinks is right for his family and I'm doing what's right for mine," is the younger Humphreys' response.

"But we talk regularly, so it'll be interesting. He didn't really have much to do with my negotiations coming back and to keep things simple it was taken out of his hands," says Ian who is due to start again for Ulster on Saturday in their final pre-season friendly with Leinster in Tallaght, Dublin.

"Listen, professional sportsmen are coming and going all over the place, he got an opportunity to move on and do what he wanted to do.

"I'm back here regardless of whether he was going to be here or not.

"That wouldn't have changed my decision if I'd known he was leaving.

"I'm back here because I want to be here and I want to be part of Ulster Rugby (again).

"We were always coming home eventually," says Humphreys who prior to last week was last seen in an Ulster shirt when he was sprung from the bench to replace the struggling Paddy Jackson in the 2012 Heineken Cup final.

"But the chance to come back here, seeing the new facilities and the new gym and seeing how well Ulster are doing, well, it was an easy decision to make."

After referring to largely being edged out by Shane Geraghty in his final few months at Irish, Humphreys – who was with Ulster between 2008 and 2012 and, was actually recruited from Leicester Tigers in the wake of David's retirement from playing – makes it clear that he has quite a task on his hands if he is to put Jackson under severe pressure for the latter's starting place at the Kingspan and is pragmatic enough to admit that his 22-year-old rival is clearly the first choice at 10.

"I know 'Jacko' is in pole position and all I can personally do is play as well as I can with the opportunities I get in the friendlies and when he's away on international duty," he added.

"But when you look through the squad and you look at second row there's Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe while the back row is really strong too.

"And there must be three or four current internationals in the centre so everyone will be pushing each other on.

"Look at Leinster over the past few years, their strength has been the strength of their squad and it's something we've had to aspire to in order to emulate their success.

"Toulon, Northampton and Saracens – the common theme running through all those squads is that same strength in depth."

He talks a good game and so he should after two stints in the English Premiership (Humphreys had three years at the Tigers before joining Irish from Ulster two years ago) which have battle-hardened him and added to the attractiveness of bringing him home for what is likely to be his final professional contract and in a place where he can hopefully bring that huge experience to bear.

"That's one of the reasons I was brought in," Humphreys admits.

"To add a bit of experience and I understand that my role is partly that.

"But I just want to play as many games as I can and just enjoy.

"Being away for two years has shown me that I've really got to appreciate my time here because it's a special place and I don't want to let my time pass by without enjoying it."

It feels good to be home again.

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