Pre-season is over...now we tame the Cats, warns Nelson
There was a time this summer when, in the race to be Ulster’s primary out-half for the season’s opening months, thatPete Nelson seemed to be the clubhouse leader.
With Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding not present to start the campaign, and Ruan Pienaar having already begun his new life in Montpellier, three of the five players who wore the ten jersey last season are no longer options for when league new boys the Cheetahs come to town for Friday night’s Guinness PRO14 opener (7.35pm kick-off).
It seemed a straight fight between Nelson and Brett Herron, the youngster who arrived from Bath a little more than 12 months ago, before Operations Director Bryn Cunningham pulled something like a rabbit out of the hat a week ago.
Enter Christian Leali’ifano, the 19-times capped Australian international who arrived last Wednesday from the Brumbies on a five-month deal.
An inspirational figure, the 29-year-old, who only two months ago made his return to top-level rugby after a battle with leukaemia, instantly jumps to the top of depth chart and is expected to make his debut in tomorrow’s historic clash against South African opposition.
Rather than bemoan the presumed loss of a starter’s jersey, if not for this weekend then moving forward, Nelson is eagerly trying to soak up as much as he can from a man who made his Test debut in the 2013 Lions series.
“He’s trained a little bit and you can already see the glimpses of class he has,” said Nelson.
“I’ve chatted to him a good bit trying to help him out with the plays.
“He’s very knowledgeable about the game and hopefully that’s something I can learn off him as well.”
Throughout the course of his career, the Dungannon-born 24-year-old has been a versatile player, sharing his 37 Ulster appearances between full-back, wing and out-half.
But, if he was the man charged with writing out the team-sheet, it would be beside the number ten where he’d be inking in his name.
“I’ve enjoyed playing ten, I won’t shy away from that,” he said. “I enjoy that control element in the team.
“I enjoy playing 15 too, it’s a completely different position, but I’ve enjoyed ten (more).
“I’m still happy to play anywhere. I’ve enjoyed my time at ten, I might get a bit more this year, I’m not sure yet, but my versatility hopefully will bring more opportunities this year.”
For those opportunities to arrive, Nelson knows fitness will be the key.
In 2015, with a number of senior men away at the World Cup, Nelson had appeared in nine games before December only for his progress to be derailed by a horrendous foot injury suffered against Edinburgh that had some wondering if he’d ever be able to make it back.
In the end, he was out of the game for more than a year, making his return for Ulster in February of this year, incidentally also against Edinburgh.
Subsequent niggles here and there would limit him to just five further games last season, but he feels good with a full pre-season under his belt.
“It was a bit of a stop-start season for me last year,” he admitted.
“It’s difficult because you just want to get into a rhythm and you only get that from playing game on game. It’s difficult but at the end of last year I was just glad to get some game time having been out for so long.
“I only got a few run outs, but I’ve had a good pre-season, a full pre-season which I haven’t had for a while, and I’m ready to go.
“But now I’ve had a full pre-season I feel a lot sharper and ready to go for the start of the season.”
Sharp is not a word being readily associated with Ulster’s pre-season preparations on the whole though, after the side, admittedly with an extended panel, contrived to ship more than 80 points combined in losses to English pairWasps and Northampton.
With there likely to be no rust on show from a Cheetahs side who already have a Super Rugby season and a sizeable portion of a Currie Cup campaign behind them, Nelson admits that vast improvement will be required tomorrow.
“Obviously the two pre-season games didn’t go our way,” he acknowledged. “It wasn’t good enough from us and we all knew that, we didn’t need the coaches to tell us it wasn’t good enough. We were well aware of that.
“There were areas in the first half we were good and it’s important we build on those, and we all know the second half wasn’t good enough and we have to step up to that ourselves.
“But you have 30-odd players playing in those games, you have different combinations, boys coming on and off, so we’ll put that to one side now — this is the season starting now and we’re massively focused for Friday night.”
With so many looking forward to seeing the South Africans in action for a first time, Ulster know that the serious business, and with it the serious scrutiny, starts now.
- Ulster v Cheetahs, Guinness PRO14 Championship: Kingspan Stadium, Tomorrow, 7.35pm
Belfast Telegraph Digital