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Ulster won't be sidetracked by off-field speculation, vows Andrew


On target: Hooker John Andrew is eager to take his chance during the Six Nations window
On target: Hooker John Andrew is eager to take his chance during the Six Nations window

By Michael Sadlier

Whether he starts or benches tomorrow evening, John Andrew will be making his 40th appearance for Ulster and the 24-year-old wants to make it memorable for all the right reasons.

It's hardly the more notable moment that awaits him after another 10 games but is, nevertheless, significant as Andrew is third choice hooker behind Rory Best and Rob Herring and has had to wait for his game-time largely through a combination of Best being away with Ireland or injury having cleared a path for the Ballymena man.

Though he could be propelled further forward once Best retires there is no doubt that Andrew, who is contracted with Ulster until 2020, wants to make an impression when the opportunity arises.

And though he did so during his 55 minutes playing in last Friday's 59-10 annihilation of the Southern Kings, a game in which Ulster's lineout accuracy was on the money, his maturity and skill at handling on-field issues was also tested in relation to the difficult season which has threatened to engulf the province.

When asked about how the squad are coping generally with their inconsistent form, the injury toll to key players, the court case, Les Kiss's sudden departure and the latest speculation which has emerged from the southern hemisphere regarding Jono Gibbes' future in Belfast, Andrew hesitates before delivering his own take on it all.

"Obviously stuff goes on but in rugby it doesn't really wait around as you've got a game in the next week or two so you can't sit and think about all the stuff that's going on," he says.

"We are here to play rugby and we all love playing rugby and that's what our focus is on.

"If there's stuff going on off-field, you've just got to get on with it really," Andrew explains.

The curve-ball question now out of the way, Andrew - who has had more starts this season, six so far, than any before in his three previous campaigns since making his debut off the bench against Connacht on Boxing Day 2014 - settles down to address anything else that comes his way.

Kiss's abrupt, but hardly unexpected, leaving resurfaces but Andrew deals with it pragmatically.

"It was a bit of a shock but we had the Kings coming up and you've got to get on with it and knuckle down at training," he says.

"If you don't take that (training) seriously that's when you slip up and we're sitting in third in our Conference and the PRO14 is our sole focus now so we know that every game is a must-win for us," the former Ballymena Academy pupil adds.

"Les was a real good guy and brought me into the senior set-up and I owe a lot to Les. It's not nice to see people go but unfortunately that's sport."

Indeed it is and, as such, Ulster must gather themselves for a distinctly challenging task tomorrow night when an in-form Edinburgh side, punching above their usual weight under the guidance of Richard Cockerill, are at the Kingspan Stadium intent on snatching third spot from the province.

Three points separate the two sides in Conference B and with leaders Leinster hosting second-placed Scarlets a lot can be gained by whoever wins in Belfast which, in turn, is a concern as Ulster have been so inconsistent this season.

"Since Cockerill has come in I think Edinburgh have won 80% of their games," says Andrew, whose older brother Ricky also played for Ulster.

"We didn't leave any stone unturned when preparing against the Kings and we're doing the same this week for Edinburgh," he adds.

"We have to back it (last weekend's win) up again, that's the consistency we need."

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