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Humph jnr can step out of David's shadow

By Gavin Mairs

Ever since Ian Humphreys began catching the eye with Ballymena Academy he has operated under the shadow of his big brother David.

"He's a spit of Davy but with a left boot," was a common description at the time.

While there are undoubted benefits of having a famous sibling, there are also considerable downsides, particularly when you play in the same position.

Probably the biggest hang-up is the potential for unrelenting comparisons, and the possibility of them being unfavourable and almost certainly unfair.

It was no surprise then that Ian Humphreys, aka Mini Humph or Humph Junior took the admirable decision to plough his own furrow in the tough environment of the English Premiership when he joined Leicester Tigers in the summer of 2005.

Up to that point, his progression through the ranks had been impressive, representing Ulster and Ireland Schools as well as Ireland Under-19s and Under-21s.

Having played for both Ballymena and Dungannon, his form became more consistent at Belfast Harlequins and he was a driving force behind the club's appearance in the All-Ireland League final in 2005 before the call came from Welford Road.

He had been on a development contract with Ulster but the prospect of playing behind David, Paddy Wallace and Adam Larkin offered him little option.

It was time to cut his teeth in the hardest school in Europe.

The Tigers have the reputation for vicious training session where there are no hiding places and reports filtered back of Humphreys having extended one-on-one tackling sessions with Neil Back to improve his defence.

Battling for a place with Andy Goode and Paul Burke was never going to be easy, while a shoulder injury also proved a setback. But Ian made enough of a mark to help the Tigers in their push for the EDF Cup and Premiership double as well as playing in the Heineken Cup final defeat to Wasps last season.

Former Leicester coach Pat Howard remains a big fan, describing him as the kind of player people pay money to watch, and there is no doubt his time in the school of hard knocks will have not only made him a more confident player but also more robust.

And with perfect timing the 25-year-old is now to return to Ulster just as his big brother is set to retire.

Ulster had toyed with the idea of replacing Humphreys senior with a big-name overseas star, such as the Auckland Blues' Nick Evans.

But the overwhelming priority is rightly to beef up the pack, particularly following Simon Best's retirement and the imminent departures of Neil Best and Roger Wilson. More signings will follow next week.

And following Niall O'Connor's emergence this season, the return of Ian will see two young home-grown players do battle for the No 10 shirt, with Paddy Wallace, currently the back-up 10 in the Ireland squad, providing cover.

And that can only be good for the new Ireland coach whenever he is appointed.

Ian's running and distribution game will complement the big-kicking game of O'Connor and the competition between the pair will be absorbing.

With his Leicester experience banked - including out-playing Ronan O'Gara at Thomond Park during the Tigers famous Heineken Cup victory there last season - Humphreys is ready to step up to the plate.

His big brother David will no doubt be keeping an eye on him from the stand next season, but Humphreys junior can look forward to finally losing the monicker. If nothing else, he's earned, the hard way, the right to be regarded as an Ulster player, not just David Humphreys' wee brother.

Belfast Telegraph


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