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Facing pals was strange but I'm now devoted to Ulster: Ian Nagle



Mixed emotions: Ian Nagle during Ulster’s win over Munster

Mixed emotions: Ian Nagle during Ulster’s win over Munster

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Mixed emotions: Ian Nagle during Ulster’s win over Munster

The beginning of the interpro series last Friday night proved something of a bittersweet affair for Ulster's Ian Nagle.

The northern province are the lock's third Irish side in his pro career and, as a Cork native, it was "strange" to get his first taste of derby action in the white jersey against Munster during the 19-12 win.

"It's always a bit strange to face Munster, like fighting your brother or something like that," he reflected.

"I've such fond memories of my time in Munster that, and this definitely might sound strange, but I want to play well to show respect to an extent.

"It's great to get a victory against Munster because Ulster's my club now and I want to contribute everything I can to the club that I'm with.

"At the same time, I'll always be a Munster fan at heart. So it's mixed emotions. But it was good to get the win and I'm glad to get 80 minutes too."

Cases like Nagle's are increasingly common in Irish rugby, with Friday night's game at Kingspan Stadium a fine example.

The side sent out by Dan McFarland contained Munster man Nagle, four players from Dublin, three from England, three from South Africa, one each from Australia and New Zealand, and only two Ulster natives.

There did not appear to be any less passion on show, however, with Ulster's biggest crowd of the season treated to a game that had more than a few flashpoints, oftentimes with Nagle seemingly front and centre.

"It's just bragging rights as well," said Nagle when asked of these games' continued appeal despite the increasingly fluid nature of provincial identity. "There's always a bit of a buzz around Christmas. You see most games sold out or there's extra seating.

"It gets the best out of the players and the supporters feed off that as well. From the last few weeks here, we're relishing that physicality and testing ourselves. I think that's what we want."

Whatever emotions Nagle felt lining out against his home province on Friday will no doubt be shared by head coach McFarland this weekend.

The Ulster head coach was born in England but had a long association with Connacht both as a player and a coach, spending over a decade in the west of Ireland.

Friday's clash (7.35pm kick-off) won't be his first time back in Galway thanks to his days as a Glasgow assistant, but there is no doubt it remains a special fixture for the former prop.

He doesn't, however, believe his time there will offer any particularly fresh insight into a side reeling from allowing such a dramatic Leinster comeback last Saturday evening.

"They have moved on," he said. "They have had two (head) coaches since I was there. I know Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy very well, but they have moved on as well.

"They are doing their own thing and it is working really well.

"Our insight into them comes more from watching them and studying them, and I always have an interested eye on Connacht. They are an impressive side."

Ulster know that all too well from earlier in the season of course.

While McFarland takes his still relatively new side into 2018's final fixture well placed in both the league and Champions Cup, October's defeat to Connacht was one of a few blots on the copybook.

The westerners hadn't won in Belfast for 58 years before the clash, which saw Matty Rea shown a red card early in the second half, but they came out on top 22-15 in a game Ulster had to really battle in just to claim a late losing bonus point.

"We lost at home to Connacht and you do not want to have teams doing the double on you," said McFarland.

"I know they are not in our pool (conference), but I do not want them doing the double on us. I want to go to Galway and win. Is that going to be easy? Absolutely not, they are playing some really good rugby at the moment. It is going to be a tough ask."

When asked whether a level of performance similar to the one that beat Munster on a try count of three to zero, the coach was fairly emphatic.

While his side got the job done against Johann van Graan's men, they did not hit the high watermark set in the European back-to-backs over Scarlets and were, in the words of McFarland, "out-physicalled" to start the contest.

"Not in Galway, no, I do not think so," he said when asked if the same again would be enough.

"We have to show more physicality at the start of the game. It was not that we were not physical at the start of the (Munster) game. They out-physicalled us.

"I think they came to bash our runners because the guys had done such a good job in the Scarlets games and that is what it looked like.

"We did not really get the momentum on the ball, the speed of the ball, that we needed to play the game we wanted to play. I think the same thing will happen in Galway.

"It is Christmas time at the Sportsground, the crowd will be up for it, the players will be loving it and we will have to try and dampen down their spirits, certainly with matching their physicality first off."

Ulster will wait on the outcome of the return to play protocols after John Cooney, James Hume and Kyle McCall underwent HIAs, but Jacob Stockdale is available.

Belfast Telegraph