Magner's League: Brave new Ulster boys stoking Bryn Cunningham’s fire
While Bryn Cunningham is Ulster Rugby’s senior statesman, everything about him belies that status.
Even with 102 Magners League appearances behind him, the 32-year-old full-back continues to exude remarkable enthusiasm as another campaign looms.
Ulster’s mix of home-bred international players, experienced imports and emerging Academy starlets stokes his fire.
It is to his credit that his hunger is not offset by the fact that his active participation is by no means guaranteed.
With injury having limited his competitive appearances to one in 2009/10, he could only look on as first Clinton Schifcofske and then Jamie Smith took possession of the vacant number 15 jersey.
A shoulder injury picked up against Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade in last term’s opening Magners League fixture gave way to a hamstring problem sustained in the course of his recovery.
His season became a write-off and finally, when it ended, he underwent surgery on a knee.
Whatever his role in the forthcoming campaign, his excitement on the eve of it speaks volumes for his commitment.
“I think it’s certainly the best recruitment we’ve done in all my years,” Cunningham enthuses.
“The three South Africans we have signed are quality players. They bring an awful lot to the squad, not just on the pitch but off it as well and I think that’s been highlighted by Ulster having made Johann (Muller) captain in Rory’s (Best) absence.
“Already he has shown the leadership qualities he has and we’ve seen the respect in which he is held.
“Pedrie (Wannenburg), who has been in there as well, has been outstanding for us in pre-season, too.
“Both of them have histories of picking up the odd injury but battling on. They’re the sort of guys you need — guys who’ll stand up rather than lie down.
“They don’t want to take a back seat. They’re very, very focused on what they want to achieve with Ulster this season.”
So, too, is Cunningham, who makes no bones about what matters most to him.
“Progressing to the knock-out stage in Europe is the big one,” says the only member of the 1999 European Cup-winning side still on the province’s payroll.
It pains him that in the 11 subsequent Euro-campaigns, Ulster have never achieved that.
“This season is maybe the best chance we’ve had in a while. In saying that it’s still a tough pool but if we can time our run well and be fully fit, hopefully we’ll have a very good chance,” he continues. “We’ve got some good Academy guys coming through. Physically they’re much better developed than we used to be a number of years ago.
“Compared to where we were when we were 19, they’re at a stage which is frightening. Physically they can step right in.”
But the battle-hardened maestro qualifies that by adding: “The one thing that they need to learn is the game — the technical skills it involves, game management and knowing where to be at the right time.
“Those are the sort of things they’re going to pick up by being with senior players,” he said. “The sooner we get those young guys involved the better it will be for us for with it being a longer season obviously we’re going to need a stronger squad.”
Meanwhile Ulster’s line-up for tonight’s final pre-season friendly with Leeds Carnegie at Ravenhill (7.30) includes Stephen Ferris and Rory Best. Australian Adam D'Arcy, the rugby league full-back currently on trial with Ulster, replaces David McIlwaine, with Tommy Seymour ousting Nevin Spence on the wing. For the third match in a row Darren Cave and Ian Whitten are paired in midfield.