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'People don't see emotional side': Ulster's John Andrew discusses life on the fringes


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Ulster hooker John Andrew

Ulster hooker John Andrew

Ulster hooker John Andrew

The job title of rugby player can all too often start to feel like a frustrating misnomer for those on the fringes.

Modern-day squads, when academy spots are taken into consideration, are in the region of 60-strong. Two-thirds of that number will find themselves on the outside looking in when a coaching ticket decides upon the matchday squad for a weekend.

While the increasing physical toll of the modern game is oft-discussed, the mental ups and downs for those that are regularly coming out on the wrong side of these selection debates can be overlooked.

It's something that's been playing on the mind of Ulster hooker John Andrew this season, the 26-year-old admitting he welcomed the province's recent three-week break more for a mental reset than a physical recharging of the batteries.

The Ballymena native was given his debut by Neil Doak on Boxing Day 2014, with his obvious athleticism offering a point of difference. With Irish internationals Rory Best and Rob Herring ahead of him in the pecking order though, chances were always likely to be limited to occasions of injury and national call-ups.

"I think everyone thinks it's easy all the time," he said. "Now by no stretch of the imagination is it like a real job, a nine to five, but people don't see that emotional aspect that you go through.

"There's 23 men who get to go out there on a Friday night but there's 40-odd in training. Every one of us wants to be playing and half of us don't get to. None of us want to be here to just train and go to the gym.

"It's part and parcel of it. If you're not a superstar who knows they're going to be playing every week, it's something you have to deal with.

"I've had to deal with it my whole career with Rob and before that with Rory. It's not the worst thing in the world but it has to be done.

"You have to get yourself up for it and if you don't get picked, you have to get up and do it all again the next week."

This season, with the retirement of Best after the World Cup, promised something of a belated breakthrough. Ahead of tomorrow's return to Guinness PRO14 action against Ospreys at Liberty Stadium (5.15pm kick-off), to date it has not worked out as planned.

Andrew started the season as Ulster's back-up No.2, behind Herring, while the rugby world's attention remained focused on events out in Japan. When Herring was summoned to Tokyo at short notice ahead of Ireland's quarter-final, Andrew got the start against the Cardiff Blues a week later. A big chance to impress - but then he wasn't picked again for two months.

"Yeah, it's been frustrating, you don't want to be a professional rugby player that doesn't play rugby," he said.

"The start of the season I was getting on alright and then I haven't been playing much.

"I was happy enough with how I was going, but just with the standard of the squad, if you don't play well for a game, it's four or five weeks before you get another chance. You prepare yourself every week and I think that's what's hard.

"It's the highs and lows of it. You're always up and down when you're not getting picked. For most of the games I've been 24th man and you still don't know. It doesn't happen very often but someone can go down in the warm-up and you have to be ready to play right up until you're not.

"You can deal with it in a few ways, positively or negatively. You know you are going to get a chance at some point so you can huff, do the bare minimum and just get by or you can try and get better and try and stay in the team when you do play.

"Ultimately, that's what you get picked on. You can train away all you want, but you have to perform on the pitch."

That can be a double-edged sword. When chances are few and far between, the desire to impress will naturally lend itself to an over-eagerness.

"It's something I've struggled with this year," Andrew admitted. "You put too much pressure on yourself. If you make a mistake, you can't dwell on it for too long, but that's hard. I think most players are their own harshest critic. For this game, or whichever ones I get a chance in, I'm going to try and enjoy it.

"I think that's probably when I play my better rugby, when I'm a bit more relaxed and enjoying it rather than worrying about what might go wrong or what's already gone wrong."

The player getting the minutes behind Herring of late has been 23-year-old Adam McBurney, while academy prospect Tom Stewart has been gaining rave reviews since joining the system out of Belfast Royal Academy.

"We are all good friends," Andrew said. "(McBurney) is not picking the team. (Like Conor Murray and John Cooney with Ireland), I'd say those two are fairly friendly. You work with people in your position, especially a specialised one, so all the hookers will be throwing together. The media like to gee it up because Cooney has been playing so well and Conor Murray has been unbelievable for Ireland for so long so they are just played off against each other.

"In a squad, you probably wouldn't last long if you are grumpy and not helping each other out because there are 40 of us all going towards one goal.

"I think this squad is the closest one I have been in at Ulster. Everyone is very competitive and if we are going for something everyone is going at it 100%.

"Off the pitch we are all grand, we help each other out with throwing and stuff like that."

While this block of three fixtures, and likely the Dragons home game to come next month, offers an immediate and tangible focus, the future is less clear. The three-year deal he signed under Les Kiss runs until this summer.

In his older brother Ricky, there is an example of a rugby life away from Kingspan Stadium. The ex-full-back left Ulster for Nottingham after inconsistent opportunities and has recently been coaching in Valencia, but the younger sibling knows there will always be a pull to representing one's home province.

"I'm competitive in everything I do and that is instilled in you when you are young," he said. "I had a brother that played here and (another) older brother, so being the youngest you are competitive naturally.

"You never want to quit, and if you end up moping around you're quitting, you're saying, 'Ah well, those boys ahead of me are better than me' so you just have to keep trying your hardest.

"I came through school here and Ulster are the only team I ever wanted to play for. It's probably a bit different in England because there are so many teams, there is more changing over there to get game time.

"But it means a lot when you are from Ulster to play for Ulster. I came here with my dad from about six or seven and you're watching it hoping one day you would do it but thinking it's probably not possible. When you are doing it, you really do love it.

"I want to try to enjoy it because it won't last forever."

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