Ricky Lutton in the mood to thrive under pressure
Ricky Lutton's new full-time contract with Ulster could not have come at a better time for the player or the province.
After two seasons as a development player, the 28-year-old tight-head needed to know if he had a future in the professional game.
And with John Afoa and Declan Fitzpatrick missing through injury, Ulster now are dependent on Lutton at the most crucial stage of the season. They meet one another's needs perfectly.
I met Lutton minutes after Ulster announced that the three-times Oxford Blue had signed a two-year contract, finally making him a fully-fledged pro. Not surprisingly, he was in a very upbeat mood.
"I've had two really enjoyable years as a development player and I think I have developed well," he beamed.
"Now, I guess, with a full-time contract comes a wee bit more pressure. You're not really a learning player any more, you're a doer, so you have to go out and produce big performances – that's what comes with having a full-time contract. But I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in next season and having a rattle."
With former All Black and 2011 World Cup winner Afoa moving on to try his luck with Gloucester in the Aviva Premiership, there is going to be an Ulster number three jersey to be filled in 2014-15.
"There have been two new signings (Ruaidhri Murphy and Dave Ryan) made by David Humphreys who is very astute about who he brings in," said Lutton.
"And Declan Fitzpatrick is still here as well, so there's going to be four of us going for one jersey.
"I guess one of the things in my favour is that one of them isn't a World Cup-winning All Black!" he said.
There are other factors in his favour, too: Murphy is a loose-head and Fitzpatrick's career has been beset by a seemingly endless run of injuries. That being the case, Lutton can expect to see a lot of game time next season.
"Yeah, there is a jersey up for grabs," he agreed. "So it's up to me to work hard and produce the goods on the field. Mark (Anscombe) is a fair coach, so if you're doing that he'll pick you. And he'll keep picking you as long as you're playing well."
With Ulster's three remaining PRO12 fixtures being away dates with fourth-placed Glasgow and third-placed Munster either side of a Ravenhill visit from Leinster, the leaders and defending champions, the task of qualifying for a home semi-final in the play-offs is onerous.
"It's a very testing run-in," Lutton accepted. "But the saving grace is that there's a week of rest between the Glasgow and Leinster games.
"We've had a string of really tough games one after the other, so there's a few tired and pretty battered bodies. But I think we can out and put our bodies on the line again in the knowledge that we have a down week after that.
"That will give us a chance to rest and nurse the bodies a bit before coming back for those last two games. Ahead of two inter-pros – two Irish derbies – you couldn't ask for anything better.
"That's further down the line, though. At this stage our focus is on Glasgow."
With the Gregor Townsend-coached Warriors having been so impressive in their demolition of the Munster pack at Thomond Park, Lutton knows it is vital Ulster front up in tomorrow night's set-piece plays.
"At the end of the day a tight-head is judged on his scrummaging," he said. "If I scrummaged tremendously but didn't really do much else about the park, no-one would really notice.
"But if I was outstanding about the park and got drilled in the scrums, people would be saying 'He's not good enough'. Delivering in the scrum is my main job and that's where I look to assert myself in doing my work – in the tight exchanges. Scrum and line-out are my bread and butter."