Paddy Wallace giving back to game he loves
After a record 189 appearances for Ulster plus 30 in the green of Ireland, now-retired Paddy Wallace is looking forward to taking rugby to pastures new.
With birthday number 35 now just two months off, the 2009 Grand Slam winner has fixed his sights on introducing the game to youngsters from a non-rugby background.
"I've set up an academy," he explains. "Phase One will be rugby camps over a period of five weeks during the summer in five different locations.
"Hopefully that will be a success and a springboard to perhaps bringing rugby into non-traditional rugby schools packaged in a way that I can visit schools and maybe spend two hours there promoting rugby, the benefits of rugby, the life-skills that you learn from playing it and obviously the rugby itself, the coaching aspect and getting a ball into kids' hands and having fun with it as well."
At this stage it is independent of a not-dissimilar Ulster Rugby-run venture, but Wallace hopes that rather than being seen as a conflict of interests, the two will instead complement one another for the overall benefit of the game in the province.
"Ulster Rugby want rugby to grow; they want more people out there playing it and this is a benefit to Ulster Rugby at the end of the day. Hopefully we can work in conjunction and help each other in the growing of the game," he says.
Wallace has no doubts that Ulster are in much better shape now than when he joined. He smiles as he recalls his first pre-season in 1998.
"While I was down at UCD playing my rugby I would come up every summer and do the pre-seasons. It was almost like guesswork back then in terms of the strength and conditioning side of it and the training methods. Now it's very, very scientific," he says.
"The club itself is being run on a much more professional level. The marketing side of it is much more professional. I feel we're getting value from our commercial departments because it's probably the biggest ticket in town in terms of support in Ulster.
"I felt it had been that way for a number of years and I didn't think it was being sold appropriately. Now I think we're realising our value as a brand; we're being marketed in the right way now and I think it can only improve."
And hand in hand with that, he is delighted not only at how the all-new Ravenhill looks but at the wisdom of having waited to develop it.
"I think Ulster Rugby could have maybe done this five years ago. I think it had the support, in terms of the fan base behind it to do it," he says.
"But I completely understand why we held off and waited for the government money to come through.
"We're in such a strong position now as a club where we don't have the debt of the stadium to pay for so we can obviously afford to keep recruiting hopefully – within the restrictions of the IRFU – the best players to play at Ulster and be successful."
Trophies were few and far between in his time as an Ulster player – the Celtic Cup in 2003 and the Magners League in 2006 – but in Wallace's opinion, silverware alone is an unsatisfactory measure of well-being.
"You can count trophies to mark your success but I think to be consistently at the top of the table coming out of Europe is a good indication of the success Ulster have had in the last four years," he reasons.
"It took me 10 years to get out of my group at Ulster and it was one of the highlights of my career, still, getting to a quarter-final against Northampton.
"We competed very strongly and could have actually won under Brian (McLaughlin).
"So there have been many good times and I can appreciate them because of those barren years when things weren't so good.
"But we're through that now. We have a stadium with a capacity of 18,000 that's selling out week in, week out and that is going to generate the resources to go out and get – or keep – the likes of Ruan (Pienaar) and hopefully replace guys like Tom (Court) and John (Afoa) who are moving on.
"And as long as the Academy keeps producing stars like Jacko (Paddy Jackson), Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson then the club's going to be in really good shape for the foreseeable future I hope."