Back in the habit of winning
Ulster's revival has coincided with that of Andrew Trimble, says Brendan Fanning
You don't need to be a keen student of group dynamics to distinguish between the mood of a winning operation and a losing one. You pop along to the training camp for the media day and the noise, the banter, the body language tells its own story.
The Ireland camp, for example, during the 2007 World Cup became increasingly fraught. Eye contact was hard to come by. And Newforge last week, where Ulster go about their day-to-day business? Well, once you get past security -- they share the facility with the PSNI -- you're into a hub of positive vibes. It helps that the weather is dry and mild and perfect for rugby players to do their work. And that their fitness issues are manageable. Better again that since losing to Bath in an early season run-out in Ravenhill, Ulster are unbeaten in eight games, friendly and competitive.
Everyone is quick to tell you that the influence of their South African collection has been vital. Welding Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar onto BJ Botha and Robbie Diack has given them a Springbok step not seen in Belfast since the early years of this century when Alan Solomons was in power. Back then, Solomons had Robbie Kempson and Warren Brosnahan as the cornerstone of his pack, but if, along with the coach, that seemed like a pronounced Cape Town influence about the place, it pales compared to the current crew.
And yes, they rave about Muller's leadership. So too the physique and consummate footballing ability of Ruan Pienaar looks worthy of his fat salary. Yet it's Coleraine man Andrew Trimble who, for us, exudes an energy that is Ulster's best chance of taking the next step.
Everything about Andrew Trimble suggests a player who has just arrived at the top of the mountain, and is enjoying the view. He will turn 26 next week. Surely everything is right in his world at the minute? It has been suggested that some of this contentment is down to his getting married over a year ago?
"Oh aye, you can write that!" he says. "Put that down there. I'm very well into it now. Anna was away for most of the summer doing a medical elective in Uganda and then she was in Peru doing the Inca trail and stuff like this. I haven't spent a whole lot of time with her in Ireland but she's going to be working flat out now till January and her finals. But you know I love my life and I love being married to Anna. I'm just loving my life."
It is unusual to come across sportsmen who are so disarming when discussing their personal lives. But then Trimble is different. When he burst onto the scene in 2005/'06, it was initially his power and pace on the field you noticed -- it won him his first cap a few weeks after he had turned 21 -- and his evangelical interviews off it. Andrew Trimble wasn't just a committed Christian, he was keen to spread the message. His beliefs haven't changed but his delivery has. Now it's all understated and calm.
Is there an inner strength? Believe it. You may remember Trimble became one of those summer tour casualties after the event when it was discovered on returning to Belfast last June that he had broken and dislocated his middle finger. Not easy to play rugby with that sort of injury, which had been done during the Test against New Zealand. It didn't stop him looking like one of the few Irish players capable of competing physically with the All Blacks. Neither did it stop him turning out against the Wallabies the next week.
"No, at the time I was struggling with a groin strain so I didn't even know if I was going to be able to play in the New Zealand game and it loosened up enough for me to be able to play," he says. "I was on loads of painkillers just to get through the game so I didn't notice too much of anything else happening. I've broken fingers before and thought it'd be okay.
"I'm still struggling with it a little bit to be honest. It was just unfortunate in the way it was broken -- there was a chip off it and it was dislocated as well. So the chip slipped out and stuck on top. The surgeon did the best job he could. I haven't got a lot of range in it and whenever I get any contact on it it's very sore. Yeah, it looks horrible but you'd want to see the X-ray. That looked horrendous. I suppose my finger modelling days are behind me."
The rehab from that operation meant his pre-season was upset and it cost him games he was desperate to start -- against Ospreys and Aironi -- but from the moment he set foot on the field against Edinburgh he looked and felt right. And he scored -- the first of two tries in five matches so far.
"I feel quick and I feel reasonably powerful," he says. "So that's getting me through at the minute but I think having missed those few games at the start I was just dying to get into it. My intensity was up. And my appetite for work was up as well and that probably helped me. Missing a couple of games meant I really wanted to make my mark as soon as possible."
He has done more than that. Before the tour down under last summer became a gathering of those who weren't banjaxed, Trimble was on the outer reaches of the Ireland team. He got one start in the Six Nations last season but you'd reckon that had Luke Fitzgerald been fit he would have got none. Then he went on tour and when the games broke up, his powerful running was a real asset. And his skill level -- not always the first thing that would have impressed you in his game -- was very good.
"I'm pleased enough where I am now but think I've played better," he says. "There were patches last season when I felt this was the best I'd played and right now to be honest I'd say I'm a little bit off exactly where I want to be. But I have confidence in myself and in my own ability and confidence in the guys around me to get up to that level again.
"The tour was good for me in that respect, despite the finger. I hadn't been away with Ireland for a few seasons because of surgeries and not being selected. I struggled for a bit of form the last few years. Just to get on tour, even though we lost and got a bit of a hiding in New Zealand, I really, really enjoyed it. It was great to put on a green jersey again and get the ball in my hands and play some rugby."
Maybe he's not the sort of player you can freeze out of a game and then find him hot to trot when the moment arrives?
"There are times when I feel games pass me by. It sounds stupid to say because we got a hiding but I did enjoy it in New Zealand. I did enjoy getting out there and getting involved. We definitely have the quality in Ireland to compete. You look at New Zealand and their intensity is so high and we have to be able to live with that and to match that. Australia though are there to be beaten and they're definitely not a team you'd be scared of. We should be afraid of them if we cough up the ball and make silly mistakes but if we play a decent brand of rugby and get our intensity up, we can live with these teams."
Today it's all about living with Biarritz. Trimble was a bit of a battering ram when he first came across them in his debut season in 2005. Inside centre that October day in Parc des Sports Aguillera, all pumping legs and ball tucked under the arm. That was how he had hurtled through age-grade rugby and it has taken a while to round the rough edges off him. And perhaps now Ulster too are in position to make a down-payment on qualification, for last weekend's result at the Rec -- where Bath managed not to win the game that was set up for them -- increases the prospect of a second team coming out of the pool.
"We've gone well enough in the Magners but you look at someone like Leinster and they struggled a bit in that competition and then really lifted it for the Heineken Cup because that's the level that really matters," he says. "And fair play to them they're able to get up for the big games and they're able to win the big games and that's where we want to be as well. I suppose we want to prove a lot of people wrong. A lot of people think we're effective at getting wins at Magners level but can we crank it up again to get to European level? And we definitely can.
"I think in the past whenever you're chatting to journalists and to other people, and even chatting among the team, you'd say 'lads do we have the belief that we can do this?' I don't think I have to force myself to believe we can beat Biarritz. I genuinely believe we're a quality outfit and we're in the way of winning now and we've developed a habit of winning and there's a winning culture coming in the squad. It's great. I can't wait until Sunday."