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Ulster v Zebre: Stuart just loves being back in the Old routine after injury

By Jonathan Bradley

Preparing to make just his sixth start of the season when UIster face Zebre at Kingspan Stadium this evening (7.35pm kick-off) following a year of injury nightmares, Stuart Olding admits it was something of a surprise to be summoned to Ireland's Six Nations camp earlier this week.

The gifted back was out for 10 weeks due to an elbow injury sustained in January 2014, only to suffer a second ACL tear of his career just minutes into his return that March.

Finally back fit after 12 months that taught him a rugby career is something you "don't take for granted", Olding is determined to make a big impact over the season's final months.

"Ten months out with the knee and the two months before that with the elbow wasn't great," he says with a great deal of understatement.

"I can't thank the medical staff and the strength and conditioning coaches enough.

"I fed off their positive attitude and just month after month I could see myself getting better and better.

"Five games this year, and I'm happy with how it's went and how I'm progressing.

"I just want to crack on now for the rest of the season. I think it'll come even more with more game time.

"I'm happy with how I'm playing, I think the coaches are pretty happy too. I'm really enjoying my rugby and that's something I've taken from being injured.

"Don't take it for granted, you have to enjoy yourself.

"I was down there at Carton House for a couple of training days; I was called down to cover a couple of positions in the back-line.

"I wasn't expecting it after only playing five games in a year but I was happy and Joe (Schmidt) was pretty happy as well."

When asked if the Irish head coach offered any advice as to how he could add to his two Test appearances, Olding said the message was more of the same.

"It was just to get me back down in that sort of environment," he revealed.

"Joe is a very honest guy and he knows what he's talking about. He just said keep going how I'm going and it'll come with game time; just keep working on the little things.

"The performances will come and hopefully I'll keep progressing for the rest of the season."

While earning a spot on the summer tour to South Africa remains a goal, for now his focus is squarely on his province who are in dire need of a win this evening after dropping the last two games.

Having tumbled from the league's summit down to the fourth and final play-off position, Olding knows that a string of poor team performances must come to an end against the Italians whose only ever win against Ulster came when the sides met in Parma last season.

"It's massively important," he admitted.

"We're hugely disappointed with how we handled the last game against Cardiff. We were in control for huge portions and to let them back in at the end was not ideal.

"We're still in the play-off positions but this is pretty much a must-win to solidify that.

"There's not much separating the top five or top six."

Hoping that the table will have a much healthier look around 10pm this evening, Olding says that one win will have the team right back on track entering a period without a game until the trip to Glasgow in March's final week.

"One win puts us back into contention and who knows what can happen," he added.

"Hopefully we'll still get a home semi-final in the play-offs and give the supporters something to cheer about."

His recent outings have come at full-back, Ulster's plentiful midfield options ensuring there was greater need in the 15 jersey, and Olding was enjoying the change even if he still sees himself in the inside centre berth where he gets the nod tonight.

"Yeah, I like it," he opined of the positional switch. "I think it's been good for me coming back from the injury.

"There's not as much contact or as many collisions as in the centre which has given my body a good rest.

"Playing 15, I quite like it. Running into broken-field rugby gives you the chance to express yourself a bit and that's what I aim to do every time I run onto the pitch.

"In my opinion I would like to play 12 and settle there.

"I just enjoy that aspect of being so involved in the game, sort of like a second out-half using footwork in those close quarters to hopefully beat some defenders. At the minute I'm just happy to be back in the rhythm of playing."

Already back in the mix himself, the 22-year-old is, like the rest of the province, eagerly awaiting the return of his former Belfast Royal Academy schoolmate Iain Henderson to action.

Ulster reiterated this week that the star forward should return from his torn hamstring before the end of the season with Olding looking forward to the next time they take the field together.

The duo - no longer housemates as Olding jokes Henderson has his hands full with a girlfriend and his latest adopted weimaraner puppy - have been named in the same team only once since the occasion of Olding's Ireland debut in 2013.

"The last time was the night I tore my ACL and that didn't last too long," he recalls.

"The time before that was Ireland v USA in 2013 so it's a long, long time we haven't been playing together.

"It'll be great to get him back as soon as possible and play together again."

Two of the most talented graduates of the team's academy, Ulster will feel the same way as the race for play-off places hots up.

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