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Ulster beat Benetton Treviso 32-13 in Pro 12 clash

By Jonathan Bradley

With the remainder of his Ulster career now measured in months rather than years, Nick Williams admits that the emotions of a final European game for the province last week started to hit home as he departed to yet another Kingspan Stadium ovation.

In fine form this campaign, the former age grade All Black's move to Cardiff next season was confirmed in the days just before Christmas and, as he soaked up the applause after helping defeat Oyonnax, Williams afforded himself a rare moment of reflection.

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"It's always special when you come off the field (to such a reception) and to think of your last European match, you do get a bit emotional," mused the man who has been such a success since joining from the now defunct Aironi four years ago.

"I've never hidden the fact that this place rekindled my love for the game.

"My wife Gemma and my kids love it here as well. It just seemed to work for me and my family here and unfortunately for reasons out of my control people have to move on.

"I really appreciate everything the Ulster people have done for me.

"I'm here for another three months and hopefully I can give people something really special to cheer about."

With Ulster out of the Champions Cup despite last week's win, those final months' sole focus will be the Guinness PRO12 - although a strained groin means Williams will not feature against Treviso this evening (5pm kick-off) - with the fans' favourite determined to ensure that talk of trophies, not departures, dominates his final games in Belfast.

"A lot of people talk like I've left already," he said. "I've got another three or four months and I hope to be in Edinburgh (for the PRO12 final in May). I haven't looked further… I haven't thought about Cardiff.

"My wife is really supportive. She just tells me every day I come to training, just do your thing. The future is the future but you can only control what you do now, and that's Ulster."

The motivation for silverware, however, is only one of the driving forces behind each of Williams' barnstorming runs.

The European disappointment, he says, would have been much harder to take if not for his young family and wife Gemma, whom he married last summer.

"We were all with our loved ones thankfully," he said of last Sunday afternoon when their quarter-final hopes were finally extinguished.

"You look in your childrens' eyes and you realise they're never going to say 'aw daddy you lost'.

"They're always going to put a smile on your face. It's a great aspect of Ulster Rugby, especially since Kissy (Les Kiss) has been here.

"He knows there's a bigger reason of why you play and that is your family. He's got the partners involved;

we have children's days when everyone gets to mingle with the other families.

"It's disappointing (to be out of Europe) but we'd be more disappointed if we hadn't got as many points as we did. It's rugby.

"I came here to win; that's why we play the game. It felt like we lost at the weekend.

"Travelling to the other side of the world to come up here, it was to win. It's a bit gut wrenching at times but such is life."

At 32-years-old, Williams will be spending the twilight of his career in the Welsh capital and he admits that Kiss' youth movement has him feeling something of a "dinosaur" compared to his emerging team-mates.

While the potential in Ulster's backline - the likes of Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy were all established to varying degrees coming into this season - has been no surprise, it is alongside Williams in the forwards where there have been surprise packages.

Loosehead Kyle McCall and lock Alan O'Connor have seized their chance in the starting 15 throughout the campaign while the form of 26-year-old openside Sean Reidy has also caught the eye.

"It feels like players are getting younger and younger," Williams joked. "I feel like a dinosaur out there sometimes but it's good to see people take their chances.

"I've been involved in the game a long time now and some players seem to take it for granted and then the opportunity passes them by."

Williams credits the environment for the emergence of young talent and believes it will hold Ulster in good stead over the next two months when facing a crucial run of fixtures without those involved in the Six Nations.

"It's an opportunity and time for the other lads to take a chance," said Williams.

"There'll be old faces mixed with new faces and it'll be a great challenge.

"Les has given some of the young lads who hadn't had an opportunity some trust to get a run around and it's for reasons like the next six weeks when we won't have the international boys.

"I think they'll slot in really well. For us senior lads, we need to instil a bit of confidence for the younger boys. Kissy has been getting the young lads to speak up in meetings, to have their say in training, to encourage guys to ask questions.

"These kids have been unbelievable this season and it's good for me to see that Ulster will be looked after in the next five to 10 years."

Even from afar, Williams will be watching with interest.

Bradley's verdict

Ulster have a weakened team but face Treviso,  opposition who are short of confidence. If the mindset is right, there is more than enough talent in the named panel to ensure a win for Director of Rugby Les Kiss and his men.

Belfast Telegraph


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