Ulster chance is a dream come true, says star Nick Timoney
Getting the nod from Les Kiss to start Friday night's routine win over Dragons may have been a surprise for young Nick Timoney, but the back-rower was certainly more than ready come kick-off.
With Ulster making a host of changes for the visit of a Welsh side seemingly more concerned with their hosting of Southern Kings this Saturday, the 22-year-old Dubliner was told early last week that he'd be getting a first chance in the run on side after a handful of sub appearances at the end of last year.
And, while the province are hopeful of having Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee and Sean Reidy back for this week's trip to Zebre, Timoney certainly laid down a marker should Kiss decide to give any of that trio another week.
Against what was admittedly pliable opposition, Ulster's number 8 put in a tireless shift and was rewarded with two of his side's eight scores in the 52-25 victory and a man-of-the-match award.
"I was happy enough," said the Abbey Insurance Academy man, downplaying his own contribution to the thumping win.
"I still made a few mistakes on the smaller things so I wasn't in perfect form by any means but I was happy enough.
"We've got some really good back rows in the squad this year and trying to compete with them, even in training, is helping me grow.
"I just want to keep getting better and if I'm not in the squad then I'll try to push the playing team each week to be to a point where they're ready to play. Ultimately that's the goal of the Academy, to ready boys to play at this level. So it's pleasing for me to be able to get my first 80 minutes and compete at that level pretty well."
Having not been involved in the side for the season's first three games, Timoney was thrilled to finally see his name on the teamsheet and contribute to Ulster's winning start to the campaign, but insists the role of those outside the 23 remains crucial should he once again find himself left out of the matchday squad when the bigger games arrive next month.
"I got a couple of small opportunities last year off the bench and that gave me a taste of it, and this season I got some of the pre-season games," he said of his increased exposure to senior level.
"The last few weeks have flown by, we've just been training hard. I travelled with the squad to Treviso and had a club game for Banbridge, so I didn't feel like I'd been out of action too long when I got this.
"When I saw my name on the teamsheet this week I was delighted and couldn't wait to get going. I hadn't really seen it coming, but from there we just got our preparation sorted, we worked pretty hard Monday and Tuesday to make sure everything was set in stone and finished it on Thursday.
"I think the way the squad is, we're all working hard for each other and we're winning. Even if I'm contributing just in training, then that's what I'm happy to be doing but obviously I'm delighted to get the chance to start."
One point of difference between Timoney and his back-row colleagues is his speed. His second score was the product of an almighty gallop from between the opposition's 22 and 10 metre line while it was he, already with 79 minutes in his legs, who came closest to chasing down William Talbot-Davies for the Dragons' late consolation score. The Blackrock College product has long been a part of the Ireland Sevens set-up, making four appearances on the Rugby Europe Grand Prix last summer.
"Sevens helped me grow in a few ways that I hadn't been exposed to before so I think that was pretty good for me," said the former Ireland under-20 international.
"(Coming back here) there's tons of internationals, really experienced back rows in the squad, but there's also guys like Matty (Rea) who's coming through right now and is unbelievable as well and has had a really good start to the season.
"We're all competing with each other, pushing each other, helping each other and it's a really good environment for us at the moment," he added.
While there is plenty of competition for jerseys six through eight, Timoney's performance certainly impressed Kiss.
"Nick has been patient, worked extremely hard at the basics of his game and the things he needs to do," said the Director of Rugby.
"By his own admission he knows he has more to do but he's been doing the right things at the right time. It was a superb performance and we haven't seen the last of him."
Whether that means another start out in Italy this week remains to be seen but Kiss did hint that there would be more rotation as Ulster prepare for an October that features two inter-pros and two European tussles.
"There will be some," he said of the potential for changes. "We wanted to establish things early, get a few combinations together and then give some others the opportunity. It's a jigsaw puzzle and we hope it's coming together.
"We'll look at it as a team and assess what we think it will be and make the decisions on Monday or Tuesday."
• England number eight Billy Vunipola faces a race against time to be fit for the start of the RBS 6 Nations after undergoing knee surgery. Vunipola will be out for 16 weeks.