RaboDirect Pro12: Whitten winging it as Ulster push on
Ian Whitten tells it like it is. He is impressively honest in saying that he’s ambitious. Those ambitions include a regular place in the Ulster side and he isn’t too bothered where he is selected. Just so long as he is.
Numbers don’t matter to the Queen’s University graduate in accountancy. Provided he has a jersey on his back, the digits upon it are neither here nor there.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man” they say, so with Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli on World Cup duty with Ireland and Scotland respectively and Tommy Seymour having joined Glasgow Warriors during the summer there were early-season gaps to be filled on the wings.
Now, it is fair to say that one or two probably raised a quizzical eyebrow when Whitten was named at number 11 in the Ulster side to face Glasgow at Ravenhill in the opening match of the RaboDirect Pro12 series three weeks ago.
And they may well have done so again when he was retained there for the Viadana date with Aironi the following weekend.
But by the end of last Friday night’s 20-3 Ravenhill victory over Cardiff Blues in which he made it three on the trot as a stand-in left-wing, the doubters’ ranks had shrunk to numbers so minuscule as to be irrelevant.
His part in Darren Cave’s second try, coupled with his overall contribution, confirmed that there is a lot more to the affable 24-year-old than mere physicality. He is no slouch and he can play a bit, too.
Glasgow had discovered that on September 2nd when his mazy run from deep inside his own half set the wheels in motion for the first of Ulster's three touchdowns.
“I’m not a Craig Gilroy,” he smiles. “I’m not going to stand a boy up and skin him on the outside. But maybe I can come in, bring a bit of physicality, show a wee bit of hands and run a good line — hopefully just keep doing what I have been doing.
“It hasn’t been going too badly,” is his totally understated assessment of his contribution to date.
He anticipates another afternoon of hard graft at Liberty Stadium on Sunday when Ulster square up to Ospreys (4.30).
“Tight game, it’ll be a physical battle,” he predicts, with no hint of trepidation. Standing 6ft 2in and weighing 16st, he is not easily intimidated.
“We’ve really got to turn up, get stuck in and be aggressive from the start. Then hopefully, having done that, we can impose our style of play and come away with a win,” is his matter-of-fact summary of the coming task.
He feels the team’s attack-minded style is helping him in his still-new role.
“It’s good the way Ulster play — bringing the wingers in — because that means you get a decent bit of ball. I’ve been well involved in the matches so far and hopefully I can continue with that and make a bit of an impact,” Whitten reasons.
His take on Ulster’s clear commitment to attacking football is that it ought not to have come as a surprise to anyone.
“I think it has always been there,” he points out. “The way Doakie (Neil Doak) coaches us and the way Humph (David Humphreys) wants us to play is all about an attractive style of rugby.
“That’s what we want to do and thankfully this year we’ve shown, in glimpses, that we can do it by playing an up-tempo game. The more we play together, the better we’ll become at it.”
The arrival of New Zealander Jared Payne is another plus in the equation and having lined out alongside the Kiwi in last Friday night’s back three, Whitten saw enough in the newcomer’s debut to have been suitably impressed.
“As a full-back he was able to keep me right. I don’t have a lot of experience on the wing, but he has played there so he was really good in talking to me throughout the match. It was really beneficial for me having him there,” Whitten enthused.
Meanwhile another of Ulster’s southern hemisphere players expressed his satisfaction with the team’s start to the campaign and their overall development.
South African back row forward Pedrie Wannenburg (pictured) is encouraged by the early signs and is looking forward to facing Ospreys in Swansea where Ulster suffered their only on-the-road defeat by Welsh opponents last season, Cardiff, the Dragons and Scarlets each having been felled on home soil.
“Yes, last year we had a good percentage rate in Wales,” he recalls, “though we lost by one point to Ospreys. It’s going to be a tough one, but we have to focus on ourselves rather than the opposition. If we do our stuff well, that is what is going to work for us at the end of the day.”
Highlighting the importance of competition for places, its positive effect on players and the need for a big, high-quality squad, the remaining fixture list he cited was very significant.
“It’s a long season; there’s 28 more games to go counting the semi-finals and finals,” he stresses. Tellingly he sees Ulster going the distance in both the Pro12 and Heineken Cup.
To do so will entail winning matches like Sunday’s clash with Ospreys. He is confident that Ulster are good enough to claim such scalps.
“I think the guys have actually started to believe that we can win something,” he ventures.
Fighting talk en route to Wales.