Belfast Telegraph

Rob Lyttle keen to keep on living the dream at Kingspan

Aiming high: Rob Lyttle at Kingspan Stadium
Aiming high: Rob Lyttle at Kingspan Stadium

By Michael Sadlier

He's managed to live the dream. To wear the shirt. Play at Kingspan Stadium. Make his senior debut at 19, scoring two tries. And play in both the Guinness PRO14 and Europe.

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It has been Rob Lyttle's goal for a while, and he has recalled being star-struck as a P7 pupil at Maralin Primary School when he met Andrew Trimble at a mini-rugby tournament held at Kingspan Stadium.

From then his aim was to play for Ulster, with extra fuel being added to his burning desire by watching his heroes go about their business when on regular trips to watch games at Kingspan Stadium.

The boy from Donaghcloney hasn't done too badly, and the now 22-year-old has recently signed a three-year contract extension. Justified reward for the form he has brought to the table in the early part of this season.

Yes, living the dream, and there might even be the chance of what would be only be a third European appearance should he make the cut for this weekend's squad which will turn out at Bath on Saturday.

But it's not all been smooth-going for Lyttle who made his first Ulster appearance from the bench back in September 2016.

Though he cut a clear dash from the off, making his way towards regular appearances has been fraught by the congested pecking order when it comes to other back three players who are ahead of him in the queue and, almost inevitably, the dreaded curse of injuries.

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Between February 2018 and January of this year, Lyttle was out of action, prompting him, eight months in to his lengthy time on the sidelines after damaging a hamstring in his two-try performance against the Kings, to tweet some footage of himself on an anti-gravity treadmill with the message 'still alive for anyone concerned'. Including his comeback in last January's Leinster game, Lyttle was involved in nine of Ulster's last 14 games of the season and scored three tries.

The former Academy player got a new contract too but still needed to produce something special at the start of this season to achieve the required longevity, and with it security, to ensure he stayed around Kingspan Stadium.

If he felt any pressure it wasn't evident as Lyttle has looked sharp in attack, kick-chasing and defence in his four games this season. He was even name-checked on occasion by Dan McFarland, and the reward came with this week's announcement of a three-year deal to keep him at Ulster until at least 2023.

"I grew up watching guys like Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe," says Lyttle, who was, understandably, fairly contented-looking on the day his contract extension was made public. "Those guys were my heroes and they have left the wing jerseys in a good spot so hopefully I can do a decent job (following them)."

He has to nail-down a regular place, which has gone well so far, but is no easy task with Jacob Stockdale around again, as well as Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik and Robert Baloucoune all fit.

As for the well-earned contract, well, it has kept the dream alive of playing for his home team.

"I'm absolutely delighted," is the response from the 27-times capped player.

"To make my debut for Ulster, to play once, was a dream come true. To then to get a few more caps was brilliant.

"Now to sign on for three years is absolutely brilliant and something I never thought I'd (be in a position) do."

The competitiveness of the back-three is pretty intense, though Lyttle can play full-back as well, though, then again, so can Stockdale, Ludik and Gilroy. Lyttle does have one extra piece of armoury, though, as he can goal-kick.

"I'll just have to play my best, and if that's not good enough then there isn't much I can do about that," he says.

"If you were guaranteed a start every week you'd maybe take it easy, but when everybody is pushing, everybody apart from maybe Hendy (Iain Henderson) and Jacob (Stockdale), then everybody else is fighting for their spot and that is what you need."

His own place in Saturday's side to take on Bath is by no means guaranteed, though, clearly, he is hoping that his form will get him there whether in the starting side on or the bench.

Should he get the nod, the hope also is that his luck in Europe might be about to change.

So far, though, only from two the games, it hasn't been great.

"I've played in Europe twice, both have been away and we have lost," he says with a smile.

"It was at Bordeaux (in October 2016) and Wasps (January 2018), so hopefully I'll not repeat that again if I get a chance."

He adds: "If we can focus on ourselves (at Bath), have good ball security and play our game our way at a good fast pace then I think our best will be good enough."

Confidence. They say it breeds success.

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