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Mike Stanley's studying hard after earning first Ulster start

By Michael Sadlier

He's been frantically cramming to work out Ulster's playbook, and even the players' names, and now Mike Stanley will have to be up to speed on all his homework come tomorrow.

The Samoa international gets his first start in the wake of Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey's bans and the time for action is at hand as he now finds himself playing at inside centre which, at least, is not an entirely unfamiliar position.

This is what being on a short-term deal is all about. Signed only last month until the end of the season, primarily to act as out-half cover while Paddy Jackson recovers from injury, the New Zealand-born Stanley is on a pretty steep learning curve.

Stanley's knowledge of his new surroundings was tested last week when he got on at the tail-end of last Friday's home win over the Scarlets and the occasion made quite an impression on the 25-year-old.

"It was amazing being out there and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to play out there in front of packed home crowd," he says.

It won't be quite the same at Rodney Parade, but it is another staging post on what has been an unusual journey in the game.

Though born in New Zealand, the family moved to England - Essex to be exact - while he was still a child. Perhaps not that surprisingly, due to the gene pull - his uncle Joe is a World Cup winning All Black from 1987 and two cousins have also worn the hallowed jersey - he took to the game and played for England at schools level as well as being part of the Saracens academy along with contemporaries such as Ben Youngs.

But the breakthrough just didn't happen and a combination of injury and loss of motivation saw Stanley end up in the lower leagues in England with Southend.

"When I was let go by Saracens I guess I lost my love for the game and I didn't really want to play anymore so I went to Southend which was my local team really," he recalls.

His time with them revived his interest in playing and after making quite an impression down in the fourth tier of English club rugby he decided to give the game at a higher level another crack by heading back to New Zealand.

Utilising his family connections back in New Zealand the then 22-year-old ended up at ITM cup side Counties Manukau, coached by former All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga.

The move was definitely beneficial as it also brought him to the attention of Samoa and he played for them three times in last autumn's European tour with his appearance off the bench against England at Twickenham being a particularly sweet moment with his former Southend team-mates looking on.

He was back in New Zealand, and not really going anywhere, when the emergency call came through about Ulster.

"I was training with the Chiefs squad but I was relying on injuries to get any serious game-time so this was (coming to Ulster) probably the best option for me," he says.

"My agent told me that Ulster were quite interested in me to cover for the rest of the season so I was more than happy to come over. I haven't played in a while now and those 10 minutes or so on last Friday night was my first game-time since the end of November."

With his time here being limited, his focus is on getting out on the park to show off his wares and not only help Ulster but also open doors for his next port of call.

"I'm talking to a few clubs at the moment but none on these shores," he says. "But I'll cross those bridges when they come as at the moment I just want to focus on the job at hand.

"It's been a crash course in all areas but these are the things you have to do when you're in on a short-term deal. It is what it is."

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