Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Ulster haven't hit the heights yet, warns Afoa

Step up: John Afoa insists Ulster can take their game to the next level, starting tonight

He describes it as having been "a bit of a pain". Literal and figurative. Clever use of words.

Afoa's introduction as a second-half replacement for Declan Fitzpatrick last weekend at Stade Yves du Manoir resulted in a rude awakening. Pitched straight into a scrum metres from their own goal-line, Afoa and his seven colleagues in the Ulster pack found themselves being driven back at the outset of a passage that ended with Montpellier left wing Yoan Audrin scoring in the corner. Welcome back.

There were mitigating circumstances, however. Not having been able to train properly for such a long time, plus the fact that he had not had a chance to play under the latest interpretation of what now is legal at scrum-time, Afoa was at a distinct disadvantage.

"There was the rule change and with the (calf) injury I was limited in what I could do. I couldn't do any contact for four months and before the game I'd actually had only three or four scrums; that was it," he revealed.

"Because of the calf I struggled to get any training in last week. I didn't even warm up with the team just to give my calf the best chance for playing. So it was difficult, but that was the situation and I had to front up the best I could.

"The first one wasn't great, but that was a lesson learned pretty quickly and I was able just to get on with it after that and the rest of the game we sort of dominated the scrums."

Not many players have subjected Afoa to the sort of punishment he suffered in that first scrum, though he recalled: "There was a flashback to when Tony Woodcock gave me a hard time once."

His relief to be back playing is obvious. He would much rather be on the pitch and in a position where he can influence things than looking on helplessly.

"Early on when we dropped those first two games (against NG Dragons and Glasgow Warriors) it was frustrating not being able to add anything to the team," he said.

"I couldn't even train to help get the boys ready; I was only watching from the sideline. But then being back training helped take my mind off things. I've just been concentrating on getting myself right, so now I'm back playing I'm just trying to work away and get my game going."

He feels that Ulster are still building their performance-level at this stage. The best is yet to come.

"We're just cruising along," he said. "I don't think we've put a whole performance together yet."

He cites that Montpellier game as an example. "Saturday was nice, but we only scored the one try so we didn't really put them to the sword."

That being the case, he sees tonight's home date with Cardiff and next Saturday's encounter with Scarlets in Llanelli as providing good opportunities for Ulster to crank things up a notch.

"Those are opportunities to really hammer our game and get everything in place so we can make a good push for Christmas. They're two big, important games for us that we need to win to stay in that top tier," Afoa said.

Whilst conceding that tonight's opponents will have been boosted by last weekend's Heineken Cup win over Toulon, the holders, Afoa gave no hint of being intimidated by that.

"They had a good result, a good win at home for them, but we've got a strong squad and enough good players to be able to put a good team out," he said.

"If we do things well and stick to our game plan we'll be looking for a win – and hopefully a good one," he said.

At this stage he needs game time, his participation to date this season having been limited to the 30-odd minutes he got in France.

"At the end of the day that comes down to Cowboy (coach Mark Anscombe) but I'd be hoping to get more than 30 minutes for sure," Afoa replied when asked what he expects to happen tonight.

"The calf is fine, it has healed, but it needs some of those big game minutes which it hasn't had. But we've got to be smart about how we manage it and the way I train.

"I'm doing enough, but not too much. I think once we get through these two games and have the break, then I'll be ready to go."

Mention of the word 'go' raises the subject of where he sees himself playing this time next year. He is defensive on that matter.

"I just want to play these next two games and then I'll talk to my wife about what we're going to do next year," he said.

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