When he came back from Ireland camp in November after what he described as the toughest few weeks of his career mentally, James Hume had a notepad filled with things he wanted to achieve between then and the start of the Six Nations.
Unused by head coach Andy Farrell in the games against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina, the centre went back claiming he didn’t have a point to prove — but he’s made one anyway, and then some.
Since then he’s outplayed the man who many would consider to be one of the finest centres in world rugby, Robbie Henshaw, in Ulster’s first win at the RDS Arena since 2013, backed that up with a phenomenal performance against Clermont as Ulster won there for the first time in their history and, to cap it all off, he had another sensational outing against Northampton Saints last Friday, highlighted by a perfectly weighted chip-kick assist for Ethan McIlroy to score.
Only one player — team-mate Michael Lowry — has made more metres than Hume (214) through two games in Europe this season. His nine defenders beaten ranks third and he tops the offload charts with five.
He’ll still say he didn’t intend to, but that’s some statement.
“He’s been brilliant,” enthuses Lowry, who has had a front row seat to Hume’s growth since the pair were school-mates at RBAI.
“I suppose it comes down to the work he’s done off the pitch that nobody sees, and that allows him to go into each game with full confidence. He’s worked very hard on certain aspects defensively and making reads, leading us into turning the ball over, and even in attack.
“It’s just confidence. He does a lot of analysis. He’s been playing to his strengths really well at the minute and he’s bringing that out with a lot of confidence.”
One man understandably taking a very keen interest in the development of Hume is his defence coach Jared Payne, himself a former Ireland centre.
When it comes to knowing what it takes to play at international level then Payne should be an excellent sounding board for Hume, the former Ulster player having made 20 caps for his adopted country, as well as earning recognition with the British and Irish Lions on their tour to New Zealand in 2017.
More than most, Payne knows what the 23-year-old needs to do to add to the one cap he won over the summer — not that his coach thinks he’s far away from doing so.
“Just continuous improvement across all aspects,” is Payne’s assessment of what he wants to see from Hume.
“I know it’s a tough one but there are quality centres everywhere. Back in my day, if James was playing the way he is then he’d probably be in the Ireland team, but Ireland are very lucky with the depth they have in that position, the quality there.
“For James, that consistency of performance, if he keeps doing what he’s doing and keeps putting his best foot forward then it’ll be pretty hard for Ireland to be ignoring that.
“The form he’s in is class. He’s good on both sides of the ball. He’s very good in defence and very good in attack. He’s a complete player at the moment. He knows he has some small issues that he needs to iron out, but sure everyone does.”
While Hume has undoubtedly been a star, that’s not to downplay how the rest of the squad have been performing either, with Ulster on one of their best runs in recent memory.
The wins at Leinster and Clermont were backed by victory over Northampton that has the province two from two after the first half of pool games in the Heineken Champions Cup, but more impressive for the coaches has been the nature of the wins where Ulster have had to weather storms in all three games and yet have still emerged victorious.
After their Challenge Cup semi-final defeat by Leicester Tigers back in April, Payne claimed Ulster “stopped playing” during the second half of that clash, leading to their elimination.
He’s not saying the same thing now as they head into a mouthwatering interprovincial derby against Connacht at Kingspan Stadium on Sunday.
On their recent resolve, the coach explained: “It’s not about not playing, it’s more about playing smart at the right times and having a feel about what way the game’s going, what’s required at a certain time.
“The guys have put a lot of time into understanding that and understanding how they can play differently at certain times, adapt to the game and wrestle back momentum. There’s been a lot of examples of that and it’s great to see that coming through.
“There’s going to be times where it mightn’t be as good as it has been, but it’s all been part of it and it’s nice to see them getting rewards for the work they’ve put in around that area.
“But there’s going to be rocky paths and we’re going to be well tested this week. I’m excited to see where this game goes this week.”