Nick Timoney wants a return to try-scoring for Ulster ahead of Zebre visit
Ulster v Zebre, Guinness PRO14 Championship, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 7.35pm
It seems as if Nick Timoney has been around the Ulster side for an age and yet, surprisingly, this is only his second season of being exposed to game-heavy involvement.
And that's just it, the back-rower has now almost become part of the furniture as he has managed to put in some pretty serious time at the coal-face, whether the 23-year-old has been in Ulster's starting side or been sprung from the bench.
Last season he was involved in 20 of Ulster's 28 games, and was a constant presence right the way through from the match against Benetton at the end of November to May's Champions Cup play-off with the Ospreys.
But this time around the former Blackrock College pupil has already hit the 19 mark and has missed out on just two of the province's fixtures, one when he was not selected for October's home tie with the Dragons and the other when an unused sub in last month's European clash with Racing 92.
So there is no doubting Timoney's durability and, up to now, he has certainly been able to dodge injuries in a way that his fellow front-line back-rowers at Kingspan Stadium have not found possible, hence his being asked to go to the well with such frequency.
He can also function across the back-row if required, though that in itself is no rare thing these days, and yet Timoney's game is not really about being a workhorse with a willingness to absorb punishment - though he has put in four 80-minute shifts over the last five games - as the former Ireland Sevens player craves the open spaces rather more than the meat and drink of the breakdown.
Indeed, he is hoping to put the hard slog of last weekend's rare Guinness PRO14 away win, on the pudding of a pitch against the Ospreys at Bridgend, firmly behind him on Saturday when getting back out on the prairie of Kingspan Stadium when Zebre provide the opposition for what will be Timoney's 43rd Ulster cap.
"I haven't scored a try or made too many big breaks recently," he says rather wistfully at how this campaign has evolved.
"So I'll hopefully get back to doing that if we can put some nice running rugby together."
True enough, he has one try from his 19 games - and that came back in October when Connacht won in Belfast - and yet chalked up five from last season, which is maybe a reflection on how much more grafting he has been asked to do this time around.
"It's always the goal I guess to be running, and when you have the ball and you're running forward it's usually a pretty good outcome," adds the Dubliner.
Knowing that having a fully fit Marcell Coetzee, Jordi Murphy and Sean Reidy - who he all lauds as terrific to learn from - can mean that he does bench time, but Timoney sees any opportunity to get a run of starts as one to be cherished.
"I've been in and out of the starting team which brings its own challenges," he says.
"I've been lucky to avoid injuries for the most part this season and with us having injuries, and international players gone, this is a pretty good opportunity to put my name in the hat for when everyone gets back.
"I also think I'm lucky in that there has been one matchday squad in maybe the last 39 or 40 games that I haven't been in," he adds when referring to dealing with the transition from starting to occupying the bench.
"(If benching) I like to tell the lads that are starting that I'll cover any of their (back-row) positions whoever goes off, so you have to really do the work as you have to know three times the amount of stuff," he says.
"I think when you're starting it's actually easier as you just have one role to think about, you fulfil that role and that's you hopefully," Timoney states though, clearly, starters have also been known to shift positions.
Anything less than a resounding result against struggling Zebre will be a massive disappointment, never mind what it might do for Ulster's hopes of chasing down Benetton and Edinburgh in Conference B's play-off spots and, of course, the pressing need to maintain vital presence in next season's Champions Cup.
And with just two more home games from the five PRO14 fixtures remaining after this weekend, Ulster, and Timoney, could really do with hitting those open spaces come Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Academy trio of Michael Lowry, James Hume and Eric O'Sullivan have all signed their first senior contracts with the province.
This has been an eye-catching breakthrough season for 23-year-old loosehead prop O'Sullivan, the Dublin native featuring in 19 of Ulster's 21 competitive games.
Twenty-year-old Lowry has played 11 times for Ulster this season and got his first start at out-half last weekend in the win at the Ospreys.
Centre Hume, who is also 20, has played nine times.
Meanwhile, the Ireland senior squad will host an open training session on Friday, March 1 at Queen's Sport, Upper Malone, Belfast. The open session is due to begin at 10.30am.