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Coming back in the Nick of time for Ulster Rugby

By Michael Sadlier

Last season it seemed he was smashing his way over gain-lines for fun, and skittling defenders in his wake, but this time around things have, so far, worked out rather differently.

Now in his second season at Ulster, Nick Williams accepts that he set the bar in a rather lofty place during his initial campaign here – he even secured the PRO12's Players' Player of the Year award at the end of season hand-outs – and that recapturing that form has proved rather elusive and also somewhat hindered by the calf injury that has kept him out of the senior side since early November.

"It was always going to be tough after last season's success," the Ravenhill favourite says in his quietly understated way when off the pitch.

"I've tried to put my finger on it but I can't. I can blame it on whatever reasons be it form or injury," which leads us to how it is that defenders are now much more aware of the pile-driving Kiwi than they were in the last campaign.

"It just comes with the territory, as professional rugby players you have to find a different way to get around it," Williams says.

"If defenders are coming on to me maybe it will open up elsewhere so if that creates an opportunity so be it.

"I'm probably not going to get as many opportunities this year as I did last year so we work around a game-plan and see where we utilise it.

"It's not a bother to me if I'm used as a dummy runner and if there is success elsewhere then I've done my part in the team," he adds before focusing more on the here and now as he readies himself for tonight's match with Munster, where he is benched and bench hoping to make a major impact when he enters the fray.

"You can't blame it on the past," he says of his form.

"I have to try and right the wrongs and hopefully it starts this weekend."

His time away from playing has brought him more space to reflect on things and turning 30 last month will only have further reminded Williams that time is not entirely on his side when it comes to playing.

At least he is in the comfort zone of having signed a two-year extension last autumn with Ulster, which will see him at Ravenhill until the season after next and secure up until summer 2016, but the former Auckland Blues player is rather more concerned with the process of playing and, specifically, getting down to business against his old club Munster before the two pool-deciding games in the Heineken Cup come calling.

"It's a good dress rehearsal to play against the boys from down south," Williams says with a smile.

"As a squad we haven't looked further than Munster, we know the pain and hurt of losing in the fashion we did in Dublin and it was nowhere near our standards (of performance)

"We just want to get it right against Munster and then let Europe look after itself. All we can do is control the Rabo (PRO12) game on Friday."

Maybe so, but it proves nigh on impossible to steer the chat away from the must-win nature of Friday night alongside the mouth-watering European clashes with Montpellier and the potential shoot-out at Leicester Tigers to decide who tops Pool five.

"It definitely is (a must-win)," Williams says about fifth-placed Ulster's need to see off PRO12 leaders Munster.

"And not just because of our position in the Rabo (PRO12) but you never want to have two losses in a row and going into Europe with two losses in a row is not the best position to be in.

"When you look at Munster (they are) 10 points in front of us and that is the way we were last season.

"We probably led the competition for the majority of it but it's not the way you begin it's the way you end (the campaign)."

The calf injury which forced him to withdraw during the captain's run prior to the PRO12 game against Edinburgh – his last actual game-time was for the Ulster Ravens against Connacht Eagles the week before – got him down but, as Williams explains, he just had to look around him to realise that he was still in a better place than some.

"I always use Stevie Ferris as an eye opener," Williams states. "You come in the changing room and you're a bit upset about being injured and then he puts it into perspective. You can't do anything about it (injury), you just need to try and get back as quickly as possible, I'm just happy to be available for selection this week," adds Williams ahead of nodding towards the other problems that newly returned players face.

"You can do all the running of the pitch, but match fitness is totally different. Nothing can get you ready for the footie game on the paddock."

Well, there is always the crowd to fall back on in giving players an extra lift when oxygen is in short supply.

"Winners or not they're unbelievable," he says, still with that familiar smile.

"The crowd here is like an extra man on the paddock, as it is with Munster at Thomond Park. When we don't know who to turn to, we just look at the crowd behind us and hopefully they get us over the whitewash."

He clearly wants to reciprocate with another few of those rumbles, ball in one hand, towards that line.

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