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Ulster's ex-Sharks ready to sink teeth into the Cheetahs

New Springbok signing is relishing a crack at first of the South African sides, the Cheetahs, to feature in a revamped PRO14

By Jonathan Bradley

The story goes that in the early years of the 20th century, diplomats from Durban arrived in Belfast and were so taken by our City Hall building, that they asked for a copy of the plans.

Obliging locals handed them over free of charge, and a near replica stands in the port city to this day.

Thankfully for Ulster, the debt has been repaid and then some by the steady stream of rugby talent arriving on these shores, the latest of which, Jean Deysel, will make his debut tonight in the Guinness PRO14 opener against the Cheetahs at the Kingspan Stadium (7.35pm kick-off).

Following the well worn path from the Natal Sharks to Ulster, Deysel continues in a tradition that has included the likes of former favourites Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, BJ Botha, Robbi Kempson and Stefan Terblanche, as well as current team-mates Louis Ludik and Wiehahn Herbst.

It is in tandem with one fellow former Shark, though, that Deysel is looking forward to sinking his teeth into the Cheetahs.

It has been three years since Deysel, who spent the latter half of last season with Munster and has also played in Japan, last teamed up with Marcell Coetzee, the fit-again Springbok itching to get back into the action after a debut season in Belfast that was limited to just four outings thanks to a pair of knee surgeries.

"We were talking about it this week actually, we haven't played together since 2014 we think," said 32-year-old Deysel, who joined Ulster after a move for Arno Botha collapsed due to injury.

"He's fired up and ready to go. It's been a tough year for him but that's part of rugby, part of the game we play.

"He's eager. He's fit and strong and he's going to be a massive player for Ulster if he carries it on."

Such was the impact that Coetzee made in his limited game-time last season, his injury in March had a deflating effect on the struggling campaign, with Ulster ultimately finishing outside the play-off spots for the first time since 2012.

With Deysel and Coetzee now able to be deployed together though, the back-row unit should become a strength of the side.

"We share the load well, and that's what you need in a game like this," said Deysel, who will start at blindside flanker tonight.

"We're very excited to get together on the park again and enjoy it. That's why we start playing rugby.

"Sometimes when it gets hard, gets tight in the professional game, you can overlook that. I really think this weekend is one of those days to enjoy it."

For both men, as well as their fellow South Africans Ludik, Herbst, Rob Herring and Robbie Diack, the historic PRO14 fixture will have extra meaning.

The bringing of tonight's opponents, as well as the Southern Kings, into northern hemisphere rugby is a huge moment for South African rugby, and Deysel admits it was slightly surreal to be sat in Belfast this week analysing a team from his native land.

"Sitting in the meeting room on Monday looking at a Cheetahs game was quite different," said the man who scored his first ever Super Rugby try against the Bloemfontein side.

"It's exciting. I'm looking forward to getting stuck in," he said.

"They're a brilliant side, sometimes you don't know what you're getting because they have such good individuals.

"They're mid-season back home, so it's definitely a tough one. They've played a few games.

"They're well gelled and they'll come here with a great unity.

"But it's a great start for us. We're hungry to go. It's a new competition for them and it's a new start for us, so both sides will be looking forward to it."

For Deysel, who won four caps for South Africa during his time with the Sharks, the game also represents the start of the serious business after results were poor in pre-season.

"There's a new way we are approaching stuff and there's a couple of new combinations," he said by way of an explanation for last week's drubbing at Northampton.

"There's a lot of the young guys in the team as well. We're trying to do new things but I suppose a lot of your biggest lessons will come out of a loss. Sometimes when you win you brush things under the carpet that still need a little bit of work. This is when you tweak stuff. We learned a lot."

And tonight, in what will be a memorable meeting, comes the first chance to show it.

Belfast Telegraph

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