‘They said winter was finishing, but we were like Cool Runnings when we got off at the airport’
Source: Matt Mackey/INPHO
IT’S SOMETIMES SAID that players are the best recruiters for sports teams.
A good word from a former team-mate can convince a player to make a move that perhaps they weren’t thinking of, or it can sway a decision between two teams.
So it proved in the case of Henry Speight who, once the offer to join Ulster on a short-term deal came in, turned to one person: Christian Leali’ifano.
“The only thing that Christian had to say negatively was that he couldn’t stay longer,” Speight reveals. “That speaks volumes of the club, the community and the city.”
Leali’ifano, of course, spent the first half of last season with Ulster as a short-term replacement for Paddy Jackson and he quickly became a fan favourite at Kingspan Stadium.
This season it’s another Brumby who has been recruited by Bryn Cunningham, only this time it’s 19-time Wallaby Speight, who steps in as injury cover until the end of December.
With Luke Marshall, Louis Ludik and now Jacob Stockdale all sidelined for the foreseeable future – the latter on a shorter timescale than the former pair – Ulster had to move quickly to bring in someone before the start of the season, and they found a quality replacement.
Eight years with the Brumbies, and with 41 tries in 107 appearances, the Fijian-born flyer would have been high on the list, and the option to move was met with similar enthusiasm.
“I’m always looking for an experience other than Super Rugby after over 100 games with the Brumbies over eight seasons, and Christian had an awesome time here and had said nothing bad about the club,” Speight explains.
“Everything I asked, it was met with a positive answer. So it was a no-brainer. Obviously when Ulster came knocking, and with a few injuries to the back three, I thought I could come in and contribute to the team as much as I can.”
In action against Ireland in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
It’s natural to think he will. After all, Speight won’t have been signed to warm himself on the bench, especially in the Northern Irish winter.
Boasting primarily a power game, the 30-year old will be expected to step onto the wing opposite the agile and evasive Craig Gilroy, forming a dynamic one-two pair on the flanks.
Arguably, however, there’s a fair amount of pressure on Speight to succeed in the four-and-a-half months he’s here after how well Leali’ifano did, his Brumbies and Wallabies counterpart really endearing himself to the home fans.
However, the man himself is aiming to leave more of an impact on the team than just a mark right now, ironically much the same as Leali’ifano did.
“I guess there’s a bit of expectation from the younger players, especially in the outside backs, with a few of our crucial players out injured,” Speight admits.
“There’s Louis Ludik and Stockdale and the likes, quality players who will be missing the first few weeks. So the onus is on us to guide and contribute and help the younger players in the squad.
“On a personal level, I come with a clean slate, it’s a new club and I feel like a new kid at school. I just want to put my best foot forward and contribute.
“Wherever the team needs me, in midfield or on the wings, I want to leave a better player than I arrived two weeks ago.”
It’s probably fair to say he’s improved a lot since the last time he was in Belfast. Not a lot of people will remember him either as a fresh-faced 19-year-old playing for Fiji in the 2007 U19 World Championships.
That tournament will be remembered for producing a certain Leigh Halfpenny – not that he’s gone on to do much with his career – but Speight wasn’t too bad either, notching five tries for his native Fiji.
He would go on to declare for Australia instead after qualifying to represent them in 2014, but back then he certainly made a few people sit up and take notice.
Things have changed a bit between then and now, and Speight laughs when he recalls his previous sojourn to Northern Ireland.
“The first ever rugby trip I made was to Belfast. So all the way from Fiji – a bit of a trek for us,” the winger recalls. “They said winter was finishing, but we were like Cool Runnings when we got off at the airport.
“The only thing I knew then was the Titanic, to be totally honest, and obviously there’s a bit of background on the political side of things.
“But so far, our experience with my missus has been awesome. Very welcoming people, very hospitable and we have seen that already.
“The community is very welcoming and the club and players have been no different. We’re really enjoying our time and fortunate to be living in the city.
“It’s pretty central. Every time I finish training, I go home, pack up and we go for a walk. Training by day, tourist by evening. I’m just trying to take in our surroundings as much as we can and it’s been awesome so far.”
Speight: “No-brainer” to join Ulster. Source: Matt Mackey/INPHO
But down to business. Rolling into town today are last year’s beaten Guinness Pro14 finalists the Scarlets, who are determined to go one step further this year.
As far as tests go for Ulster, there aren’t too many harder than this. It won’t be a true test of how head coach Dan McFarland has settled in yet, given he’s only been here a couple of weeks, but it’ll be his first competitive game in charge.
After all of the turbulence of last year, the best way to leave that in the past would be to get a win to start the season off on the right foot, and there’s a sense within the camp that they know that.
Speight starts on the wing, with Billy Burns and Will Addison also making their debuts, while Marcell Coetzee returns as a more or less new signing after being out for a year through injury, and Irish duo Iain Henderson and John Cooney are also included.
There’s no time to be eased in – Speight will be opposite Wales international Tom Prydie at Kingspan Stadium, but the Wallaby is relishing the challenge of the Welsh side.
“Yeah, great game to start off with,” he grins. “A lot of stats to back up their position making the final last season.
“We’ll have to focus on our game plan and try and stay as composed as we can and not be forced into too many errors as on the counter-attack they scored a lot of tries and probably topped the stats on that from last season.
“They have a dangerous team on attack and we have to contain them.”
The focus is short-term, but you can’t help but dangle the question: what about if Speight enjoys it here? Might there be a reunion on the cards in 2019?
“It’s something I will look to definitely long term,” he says with a wry smile. “Hopefully this is something that could start a conversation when I come out of contract with the Brumbies next year.”
For today, he’s got a job to do.
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