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Chat with Leali'ifano sold me on Ulster: Speight


Clear vision: Henry Speight at Kingspan
Clear vision: Henry Speight at Kingspan
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

When Ulster made a move to secure the services of Wallaby wing Henry Speight on a short-term deal this summer, the province will have been no doubt glad that, evidently, first impressions don't mean much to the man.

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For Speight had visited Belfast once before deciding upon joining his new side, when playing for Fiji in the 2007 Under-19 World Championship.

On the surface, Speight enjoyed his time, scoring five tries in a tournament won by a New Zealand side that featured the likes of Sam Whitelock, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg and Ulster's own Rodney Ah You.

Now 30-years-old, he has one lasting memory - the city's April chill.

"It was the first ever rugby trip I made," he recalled of the journey 11 years ago. "So all the way from Fiji, it was a bit of a trek for us. They said winter was finishing but we were like Cool Runnings when we got off the plane at the airport. Whatever layers we could put on, we put on."

That he was willing to return for what will be a full Ulster winter is in no small part down to his Brumbies and Australia team-mate Christian Leali'ifano.

The fly-half enjoyed his own short stay at Kingspan Stadium last year that, when a similar chance arose for Speight thanks to the injuries suffered by Louis Ludik and Luke Marshall, he convinced his pal to jump at the chance.

"I'm always looking for an experience other than Super Rugby after more than 100 games with the Brumbies over eight seasons, and Christian had such an awesome time here," said Speight.

"Everything I asked him, it was met with a positive answer.

"The only thing that Christian had to say negatively was that he couldn't stay longer.

"That speaks volumes of the club, the community and the city.

"So it was a no-brainer. Obviously when Ulster came knocking, and with a few injuries to the back three, I thought I could come in and contribute to the team as much as I can.

"I guess there's a bit of expectation with a few of our crucial players out injured.

"There's Louis Ludik and (Jacob) Stockdale and the likes, quality players who will be missing the first few weeks.

"The onus is on us to guide and contribute and help the younger players in the squad.

"On a personal level, I come with a clean slate, it's a new club and I feel like a new kid at school. I just want to put my best foot forward and contribute wherever the team needs me, in midfield or on the wings. I want to leave a better player than when I arrived two weeks ago."

Out of contract next year, the 30-year-old is not ruling out a return beyond the December 31 expiration on his deal.

"Hopefully this is something that could start a conversation when I come out of contract with the Brumbies next year. It's up to the powers that be as unfortunately I have to be back in January, it's out of my control. But hopefully I will start a conversation around New Year for this time next year," he said.

In the meantime, he is looking to make the most of his opportunity. Before Leali'ifano's switch, most of Speight's interest in Ulster came from watching Timoci Nagusa, his fellow Fijian now with Montpellier who spent two seasons in Belfast at the beginning of his career. Now, though, he is hoping to learn as much as he can about his new home.

"The only thing I knew then (on his first visit) was the Titanic, to be totally honest," he laughed. "Obviously there's a bit of background on the political side of things too.

"But so far, our experience, me and my missus, has been awesome. (There's) very welcoming people, very hospitable and we have seen that already just in Tesco and stuff like that.

"People are coming up and saying, 'Hi' and, 'Christian had a ball last year, hopefully you can kick some goals too'.

"The community is very welcoming and the club and players have been no different. We're really enjoying our time and fortunate to be living in the city. It's pretty central.

"Every time I finish training, I go home, pack up and we go for a walk. Training by day, tourist by evening. I'm just trying to take in our surroundings as much as we can and it's been awesome so far."

And what of his new league, one which can often feel unfamiliar to those from the southern hemisphere whose exposure to European rugby often begins and ends with the Heineken Champions Cup?

"Last season in particular, considering that the two South African sides had joined in, I watched more PRO14," he said. "But to be honest, I didn't really pay much attention, just when some Fijian boys were playing over in Scotland for Glasgow.

"I always follow where the Fijians are playing but there has only been one here (Ulster) in the last 10 years I guess.

"Especially in the last 12 months, the level of competition is right up there.

"I've definitely felt it in the training as well, there's not much, if any, difference in the level of training back home.

"Hopefully this week is a good pace and I can compare and try and make up my mind on how hard the competition really is. But from outside, watching, it's a very competitive competition and for a club like us, it's always a good thing to come up against the big teams across the border and other teams in the competition."

Making his debut this evening in the No.11 jersey against Scarlets (5.15pm kick-off), Speight says he is raring to go after overcoming the injury sustained in his final Super Rugby game and is looking forward to taking on one of the league's best sides in the shape of Wayne Pivac's exciting outfit.

"It's a great game to start off with," he said.

"There's a lot of stats to back up their position in making the final last season and we will have to focus on our game plan and try and stay as composed as we can.

"We can't afford to be forced into too many errors as on the counter-attack they scored a lot of tries and probably topped the stats on that from last season. They have a dangerous team in attack and we have to contain them.

""Yeah, (I'm) ready. I had a slight tear in my plantar fascia in my foot.

"I've been in very good hands here and the coaches have been brilliant in managing the loads, not just for me but all the players integrating back into full sessions.

"There's a fair few in the rehab group, but other than that everyone that's fit and healthy are all gunning for spots and putting their hands up.

"That's probably a good thing for the collective."

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