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I'm relishing challenge at Kingspan, says Speight


By Jonathan Bradley

Back in 2012, when Craig Gilroy's unforgettable score against Munster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final was followed soon after by the return of Tommy Bowe to his native province, the prevalent opinion became that Ulster held an embarrassment of riches in their outside back division.

With Andrew Trimble a constant for more than a decade, the marquee addition of former All Black Charles Piutau, the emergence of Jacob Stockdale into a record-setting try-scorer and a glut of quality centres, it has felt ever since that, on any given week, an internationally-capped player could find themselves not just outside the starting team but outside the matchday 23.

Homegrown wingers like Mike Allen and Rory Scholes had to go elsewhere in the league simply in search of a game, such was the backlog of talent.

Indeed, while it was never truly substantially backed up, the term 'best backline in Europe' was bandied about on more than one occasion.

These are changed times at the northern province, however. Over the last season alone, they have lost the services of Trimble, Bowe, Piutau, Jared Payne and Stuart Olding from their stockpile of outside backs and, in something of an about turn, were looking short of numbers in the department with the Guinness PRO14 campaign opener against Scarlets less than a month away.

Enter Wallaby Henry Speight, the 30-year-old who will pitch up at Kingspan Stadium later this month on a short-term deal to run until the end of December.

With the back shortage exacerbated by the injuries sustained by Luke Marshall and Louis Ludik at the end of the last campaign, as well as the significant knock shipped by Academy product David Busby in pre-season, the addition of an experienced and international quality wing seems an astute one.

When it's taken into consideration that Stockdale will likely miss the entirety of November on international duty, and be carefully managed either side, the signing becomes a no-brainer.

In something of a rebuilding phase, Ulster have cited the increased trust they will place in their Academy structures to fill voids left in the senior squad moving forward, but this signing shouldn't be considered an indication that the suggestion was merely lip service, not with Iwan Hughes and Robert Baloucoune the only back-three players contracted in the under-age system and both only about to embark on their first full year in the set-up.

There is, of course, a recent blueprint for such a model's success.

Speight is currently a Brumbies team-mate of Christian Leali'ifano, his fellow Australian international who enjoyed a successful stint in Belfast this time last year.

The out-half's stay in the northern hemisphere was short-lived - he departed for home in January and recently signed a new contract in Canberra as he looks to force his way back into the national side ahead of next year's World Cup - but there is little doubting the impact he made on and off the pitch.

And while Ulster were thwarted in their attempts to bring in another experienced out-half to replace him - former All Black Stephen Donald - the influence he'd had on youngster Johnny McPhillips was cited as a big reason in his progression when the former Irish Under-20s man was thrust into the No.10 jersey late on.

Should Speight be able to help the likes of Baloucoune and Hughes in a similar fashion, rather than hinder their development, he could in fact aid it considerably.

If along the way he can replace a little of the excitement on the terraces lost with Piutau's switch to Bristol then all the better.

The man himself is keen to get started.

"I'm excited to have the opportunity to represent a big club like Ulster," he said.

"I've spoken to Christian (Leali'ifano) a lot regarding this move and he had only great things to say about the staff, players, supporters and wider community, which welcomed him with open arms.

"This is a fresh challenge for me and I hope to embrace it by relishing every moment and by adding value to the group as best I can. I can't wait to arrive in Belfast and get to work with my new team-mates."

Ulster's Operations Director, Bryn Cunningham, is thrilled to sign a player the province had chased for some time, and himself cited the influence he expects to see on the squad's younger members.

"With the nature of Henry's current contractual position, I would like to thank the Brumbies and the ARU for facilitating getting this deal across the line," he said.

"Henry has X-factor quality and has consistently proven himself as a top performer at both Super Rugby and international level with his most recent displays for the Brumbies being eye-catching. We hope he will quickly become a real fans' favourite at Kingspan Stadium.

"His presence will also support the development of the young back three players within our senior and Academy squads."

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