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'It's a massive honour': Louis Ludik on his 100th Ulster cap, five years in Belfast and playing in the rain

 

Centurion: Louis Ludik showed no signs of slowing down against Clermont
Centurion: Louis Ludik showed no signs of slowing down against Clermont
The South African’s competitive debut for Ulster back in 2014 against Scarlets

By Michael Sadlier

He's been thinking about this for a while now. Chalking off the games and tempting fate by daring to identify when and where it might happen.

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Tonight, though, the anxiety will finally ease as Louis Ludik plays his 100th game for Ulster and even gets to achieve it at Kingspan Stadium.

There is added symmetry to his milestone as the 33-year-old prepares to face the Scarlets, with his try-scoring debut for the province, back in September 2014, also being against the West Wales region.

He will also, it seems, be paying close attention to the weather. It turns out that Ludik really doesn't like playing in the rain, which seems rather unfortunate after being in Belfast for over five years.

His revelation also seems rather off-beam as some of the South African's best rugby has been played in pretty abysmal conditions.

"I hate it, it's really tough," he tells a rather disbelieving audience of playing in the wet.

"You have to focus so much more because the ball is really slippery, but it seems like it's working somehow.

"I definitely prefer the dry ball."

Ludik has witnessed much in his time here. Even when he arrived, five summers ago from Agen, there was more than a whiff of crisis about the place as David Humphreys was off to hook up with Gloucester, which was then followed by the removal of then coach Mark Anscombe.

Since then, Neil Doak, Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes have all taken charge and gone, there has been the tearful farewell of crowd favourite and Ludik's close friend Ruan Pienaar, plus all the off-field fall-out during and after the court case involving Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

Through it all he has remained himself, not impervious to what has gone on but determined to keep giving everything towards preparing for and playing the game that means so much to him.

As such, the Irish-qualified South African has been a mainstay of consistency, his versatility in no way diluting what he has brought to Ulster over the last five years. With Ludik, you know that you will get hard-tackling, elusive running, good support play and safe hands whether under high balls or kick-chasing.

Even at 33 and in the final year of his existing contract at Ulster, there has been no suggestion of his playing abilities diminishing, as was amply demonstrated in last weekend's win over Clermont.

Even though the safe money would suggest that he will retire at season's end, it appears that Ludik's mind-set is not that of a player near the end.

Instead of reflection, the former Sharks player's gaze seems firmly fixed on what lies ahead.

"When you start looking at that milestone," he said of his 100th Ulster cap, "you start looking at when it can happen and when it can't.

"When I saw there were three games at home, I knew it could be there, so it's just the cherry on top.

"Obviously it doesn't matter where you play, but when you run out for your 100th cap at home it just makes it that little bit more special, definitely," he adds.

"I wish it had come earlier if it wasn't for the injuries, but it's a massive honour to be playing my 100th cap for Ulster.

"It's a massive privilege and I can't wait to get out there."

While physically he is clearly in great shape, his continued consistency and ability to fit neatly into Ulster's plan going forward tells us of a fairly cast-iron mentality in adapting to change and being able to keep younger rivals behind him.

As Ludik explains: "I think mentally, with a bit of experience, I've learned how to approach and adapt a bit more.

"Every coach has different ideas and sometimes you have to fit into that mould, which can be difficult, but you try to adapt your game and understand what they're trying to accomplish and the game-plan they want.

"Mentally being able to adapt your game a little bit and try to understand (the coaches), that's a massive thing.

"When you're young it's easier, but when you're older you have bad habits and trying to change that can be tough.

"You have to get over that and just try to adapt more."

As an exercise in survival, such an approach has worked extremely well for Ludik, who has managed to remain in the forefront of Dan McFarland's mind even though he is the elder statesman of the squad.

As for this evening, he is well up for the game.

"The last two weeks have been massive with two grind-out wins (in Europe).

"We're really on a high and we've got a lot of confidence, but we know the top team we want to be and we want to consistently play well and consistently beat the top teams.

"At home, it's a must-win and we have to win and kick-on in the PRO14 and keep gathering those points."

While admitting that the Scarlets are weakened due to Wales playing the Barbarians tomorrow, Ludik stated: "They play a great brand of rugby so it's going to be challenging no matter who is coming."

Again, looking forward, he strays briefly from playing the game to life afterwards and suggests that he and his family will be remaining in Belfast.

"This is home for us now. At this stage we're thinking of staying behind here after rugby. That's the plan at the moment," he says.

Tonight, as ever, the emphasis is on winning, and though the milestone moment is special, he hasn't envisaged what will actually happen in terms of potentially leading the side out.

"I don't know what the plan is and that doesn't matter, but it's still a special occasion and something I will remember forever."

He has more than earned this achievement.

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