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Ulster A believe they can earn trophy success: Owens

 

By Michael Sadlier

Although nobody wants to be best known for their exploits with Ulster 'A', things have changed regarding the value of being part of a side with a winning culture.

These days, having a shot at knockout rugby is a rare commodity for players earning their crust at Kingspan Stadium and, thus, being part of the A squad is much more marketable than has been the norm.

Jack Owens has witnessed the changing atmosphere surrounding the side, which has been particularly notable as this is the second year in which the squad have made the knockout stages of the British and Irish Cup after what had almost become a traditional exit at the group stages.

He was there last March when the A team went to Cork and tamely exited at the quarter-final stage to their Munster counterparts, who subsequently went on to lift the silverware.

This time around, the 22-year-old reckons the squad coached by Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson are in a better place and fully focused on channelling last season's disappointment into something positive ahead of Saturday's quarter-final at the Bedford Blues.

"There are a few of us who were involved in that loss (to Munster) last year," said the former Academy player, who can alternate between full-back and centre, and who has a solitary competitive appearance for the senior side. He is, naturally, eager to earn more.

"And we'll be using that experience for this year's quarter-final.

"The A team were on a bad run for quite a few years where we were struggling to get out of the group stages.

"But now we're past that and we're now looking at this quarter-final as a means of getting to the semi-final and final.

"It's not a case of just getting to the quarters and then patting ourselves on the back, we now want to be in the semi-final and final and win this competition.

"And I think the belief is there."

It would be fitting if Ulster could have a serious tilt at winning the largely unloved competition, particularly as it is being done away with after this season's final. Owens, who is on a development contract at Ulster and regularly togs out with Malone - who are on the cusp of winning Division 2A in the Ulster Bank League - reckons that the B&I Cup will be missed as it helps bridge the gap between the amateur club scene and the professional game.

The competition is also a more than useful showcase for rising talent, and Owens cites a certain Jacob Stockdale being seen in Ulster 'A' colours not that long ago in B&I Cup games.

"There are loads of boys who are pushing on and we're all in the same boat so I think (playing for the 'A' team) really works well," he said.

There has been much talk of a culture change around the squad this season and the former Campbell College pupil doesn't disagree with the notion.

"There is a nice mix of experience and young guys (in the 'A' squad)," said Owens.

"And a lot of guys have been successful with under-age programmes and have experienced winning with Ulster and, as such, are used to winning.

"That's what I've noticed the most in the few years I've been involved."

Of course, Ulster 'A' did hope to claim their quarter-final at home but narrowly missed out on that preferred outcome.

"That was unfortunate, and at the time I was a bit gutted as I'd have loved a home quarter-final," admitted Owens.

"But we're over that now and we're looking forward to going to Bedford and hopefully winning."

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