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Warwick relishing opportunity to cement a starting role at Ulster for Guinness PRO12 campaign

By Jonathan Bradley

A quick perusal of just about any guide to the upcoming season of the Guinness PRO12 will, in light of the departures of Tom Court, John Afoa and Johann Muller, inform you that Ulster's tight five could be their Achilles heel but there is at least one man refusing to entertain any such theories.

Andrew Warwick will be donning the No 1 shirt when Ulster's post-Court era begins at the Parc y Scarlets on Saturday afternoon and the loosehead believes that the strength in depth available to interim Director of Rugby Les Kiss means that the battle for places in the pack will rage all season.

"I learned a lot from Tom last season but loosehead is a very competitive position now," said the Ballymena man.

"With Ruaidhri (Murphy) and Callum (Black), we're all going for it and hopefully I'll get it myself."

Playing on Saturday may give the 23-year-old a jump on his rivals for the position but it also reflects the progress he has made over the last number of months.

This time last year, as a member of the Ulster Academy, Warwick was preparing for an All-Ireland League campaign with Ballymena but, after only making his Ulster debut in March, he is now relied upon to start the season.

In many ways his six appearances in the latter months of last season were something of a baptism of fire, as he found himself facing off against some of the league's leading sides, and he admits that the standard initially provided a shock.

He reflected: "It's a far bigger step up than I imagined but with all the experience around me, it was brilliant."

While he still benefits greatly from the tutelage he receives at Ballymena, this summer has provided him with the opportunity for a professional pre-season and the benefits are already apparent.

"It was a year and half ago that Clarkey (Allen Clarke, Elite Performance Development Manager and now also Ulster's forwards coach) brought me up from the All-Ireland League into the Ravens set-up and then eventually into the Academy.

"I was working on my strength at training there but that was it really until this summer when I started working with Kevin and J.D (Kevin Geary and Jonny Davis, Ulster's strength and conditioning coaches).

"It's been tough going but I've enjoyed it and I've definitely gotten stronger."

Like the man he is trying to replace, Warwick has also showed an ability to play both sides of the scrum, even having to face Ireland's Cian Healy when in his less favoured tighthead role, but he expects to only don the number three jersey in an emergency.

"This season, loosehead is my position," he affirmed.

"At the end of last season with there being a few injuries and stuff I ended up playing at tighthead. I'm definitely more comfortable at loosehead."

That's where he'll be on Saturday and he expects to be tested by an experienced Scarlets forward unit.

While it is always dangerous to put too much stock in pre-season results, the Welsh region looked impressive in drawing with Bath and beating Gloucester and Warwick admits that the showings have given Ulster some food for thought.

"They like to maul and it will be a big challenge for the front five," he said. "They've a big back five and their front row is hefty so it'll be tough."

A tough job but one that Warwick will need to meet head on if he is to achieve his goal of nailing down a starting spot.

Belfast Telegraph

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