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Ludik homes in on Ulster African safari


By Adam McKendry

As Ulster departed from Belfast on Monday, most of the players were saying goodbye to family and loved ones at the airport.

And while the likes of his fellow countrymen Schalk van der Merwe, who played for the Kings last season, Wiehahn Herbst and Robbie Diack were looking forward to reacquainting with old colleagues, Louis Ludik (below) had a different reunion on his mind.

Having left South Africa in 2013 to join French club Agen, before then switching to his current home in Belfast a year later, it's a rare return for the 31-year-old to his native country for rugby reasons.

And there's another reason the utility back is excited about a trip to Port Elizabeth - his parents have made the journey over for this week and will see today's game against the Southern Kings (kick-off 1pm UK time).

"It's brilliant, it's awesome to see them," Ludik smiles. "They live in Hout Bay, near Cape Town, so they've driven down for the week."

To put that into perspective, that's an eight and a half hour drive. It's the equivalent of the round trip Ulster have to make to Thomond Park each season, only one way.

"It's great to see them again," he continues. "I try to see them twice a year so it's been great to see them and spend some quality time with them which is really brilliant."

Similarly, a surprise trip back to South Africa has left the former Sharks flyer in a good mood, as has the slight change in weather from the usual wintry scenes of Northern Ireland.

"It's brilliant, it feels just like home," Ludik reveals.

"You're used to the environment and the scenery and there are a lot of familiar sights.

"Plus it's always nice to have a bit of sun - I love the sun!"

Still, as much as the grinning Ulsterman - as he is now having served his three-year residency in Belfast - is eager to make the most of his time away with his team-mates, Ulster have a job to do.

Les Kiss's men badly need a bounce back win after two defeats in a row at La Rochelle and at home to Leinster and, on paper, they should have the ideal fixture to do so this weekend against a floundering Southern Kings side.

With seven losses from their opening seven games, allied with a squad and management team that seem to be in disarray, the Kings are a team that are in desperate need of a change of fortunes.

But their new venue, the much smaller Isaac Wolfson Stadium, should be packed out for today's clash and could give them the spark they need, while a heatwave has brought searing temperatures to Port Elizabeth that Ulster have never experienced in a game before.

Nevertheless, after yesterday's look around the ground, former Super Rugby star Ludik believes the new ground will only serve to benefit the visitors as much as the hosts.

"It's really nice and hard," Ludik explains.

"Obviously it's not the Kingspan so it's a lot harder, and when the ball bounces it can go anywhere.

"It also feels like it's a bit smaller so we're going to have to watch out for those long kicks and then it depends where the ball bounces, so it'll be interesting.

"It's nice and firm which hopefully means we can play some good rugby."

As for the game itself, after his family reunion it'll also be a chance for Ludik to catch up with a couple of old friends among the Kings ranks from his time in South Africa.

Not that he'll let that get in the way come game time. The back, starting at outside centre for the first time this season, knows it'll be a tough battle, but one he knows Ulster can win.

"We'll back our game, but we know it's going to be tough," he admits. "There's a lot of factors, and it's going to be very warm too, but we back our game and we know what we have to do.

"We'll turn up and do our best, but if we make mistakes and give them turnovers it's going to be a very long day. If we stick to our guns and do what we know we can then we can win.

"There's expectation, which can be tough, but sometimes the pressure can be good. We put pressure on ourselves every game, and for a game like this even more so. We want to perform and get that win.

"At the end of the day it's a rugby game, it's a game where you never know what might happen. If they have a cracking game and they're better than us on the day then that's how it is.

"But we know we need our top game to beat them."

Last night: Glasgow x Leinster x; Munster x Dragons x; Scarlets x Benetton x

Today: Southern Kings v Ulster (1.00pm); Edinburgh v Ospreys (5.30pm); Cardiff Blues v Zebre (7.35pm); Connacht v Cheetahs (7.35pm).

Verdict: Ulster

It's a new experience for Ulster, who will need to quickly get used to the heat and humidity of Port Elizabeth during the game, but ultimately they should have very little trouble getting past a poor Kings side, especially with John Cooney pulling the strings from scrum half once more.

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