Wednesday 26 April 2017

Always pushing to be best kind of himself

Ulster winger Trimble committed to the cause and to playing on for as long as possible

‘The danger for Andrew Trimble now is in trying too hard to be the one to lead Ulster into the light’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘The danger for Andrew Trimble now is in trying too hard to be the one to lead Ulster into the light’. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Paul O'Connell used to maintain that his worst day as a professional rugby player would be better than having to earn a crust in the outside world. And in fairness to him, he's had a few rough days as a player. O'Connell is not alone in this clarity when separating sport from civvy street. Ask Andrew Trimble.

The Ulster joint captain - along with Rob Herring - is now 32, hard to recognise from the prodigy who burst on the scene for Ulster as a 21-year-old, a novelty as much for the strength of his faith as his ability to knock people over.

Trimble's withdrawal from the medal bank over that period is nothing like O'Connell's, who by comparison hopped over the counter and helped himself to Heineken Cups, a Grand Slam, a couple of Six Nations championships and a clutch of Lions tours - one of which featured a series win, in Australia. Yet on the subject of the afterlife they are on the same page, same paragraph, same sentence.

"Tommy (Bowe) and I have chatted about this in the past," Trimble says. "When we were 21, 22 coming through we thought: 'You know what? By the time I'm 30 I'll be ready to do something different.' Not a hope! If I've a chance to play rugby at this level and feel like I'm still competitive then a hundred per cent I'd hate to be doing what youse are doing! As much as there's disappointing days and tough times you've got to dig in at times. Generally, what we do we're very lucky, and Donncha (O'Callaghan) has illustrated that perfectly. If we can keep going we're keen to keep going."

And he's in good enough nick at the minute. With Trimble you can never be sure how long that will last, for literally his captaincy has been hobbled this season, most recently by a foot tendon injury. No, not the issue that cost him a spot in Joe Schmidt's World Cup squad in 2015. A different one. Four appearances this season suggest a need for great forbearance.

"Typically, in the past - not so much in the last couple of years - there have been long periods of my career where I've played week in, week out, and consistently performed. And I liked that reputation, that I was tough, I dug in and got the job done, week in, week out. Now I'm feeling almost like I'm letting people down a little bit. Like I'm nearly there. I'm training on a Monday, but not quite right; then training the next Monday - not quite there. And I find that frustrating."

The guilt bit is easy to understand for Ulster's need is great, and riding point in these circumstances can't be easy. The last time they got their paws on some silverware the Border Reivers were still stalking the land. Scotland had three teams. Italy were still queuing for entry to the competition. It was 2006 and young Trimble was part of the crew that clinched the Celtic League on the last day, with David Humphreys using both posts to send over the winning drop-goal in the Liberty Stadium. Sure what could go wrong?

He wouldn't be alone in struggling to answer that, but Ulster have spent big on coaches and spent bigger on players, with a herd of Springboks coming over the fence and a few heading back in the same direction. And nothing to show for it.

This afternoon in the Champions Cup they have a tricky sort of assignment in Devon against an Exeter side with nothing tangible to play for, other than pride. And in that part of the world it's an especially valuable commodity. Defeat won't affect Exeter's fixture list though, while for Ulster there is more on the line: the minimum is a win, and ideally to take a bonus point with it. So, in rallying the troops for the exercise does Trimble cite scripture from Paul O'Connell's thunderous old testament?

"If that's at one end of the scale then you could safely say my style would be at the other! As I said, I wanted to be myself but at the same time I wanted to push myself to be the best kind of myself, if that makes sense. Maybe just get out of my comfort zone a little bit and back myself and know that I have a lot of experience.

"I know how the game works, I know what works in the preparation and run-up to a game and what key messages to deliver. That pushed me. And it's still a role I'm coming to terms with. I feel like every week that goes by I'm getting slightly better at it. But it's tough. I find it difficult. That's why it's tough to be a Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell or a Rory Best. Those guys work hard at it and have to push themselves. In no way am I comparing myself to these guys. This is what I've looked up to in the past and is what I have to try and emulate. And that's daunting. But I'm up for it."

He should be inspired personally by how well 2016 turned out. With Ulster, it ended in typically downbeat fashion against Leinster in Dublin, leaving Trimble ambivalent about his next trip south, the following weekend: to hook up with the Ireland squad preparing for the tour to South Africa. Trimble may have been haunted by injury in the last few seasons but he's managed to feature in green every year since he started. That may have been just a troublesome toe in the water, like the World Cup warm-up game against Wales in August 2015 - his only involvement that calendar year - or it might have been like 2016 where he was on the park for 11 of 12 Tests that year. But as he packed for Carton House last summer he wasn't racing out the door.

"The feeling going in to the South Africa tour was that we'd had a tough season," he says. "We'd just got chinned in the RDS again and I felt down and felt disappointed, and daunted by the thought. I was actually talking to Marcel (Coetzee) about this the other day - of going to South Africa and playing the Springboks three times. I just was just going: 'I don't know if I'm up for this.'

"And then you get into camp and there's a buzz and you're ready to go again. That tends to be the case. When you're down you're only down for a few days and then something picks you up. And in this environment you don't get too excited when you're up, and when you're down you just try and maintain it (balance). So, I got into camp and straight away I was up for it. Then we got that first win.

"It was a brilliant, brilliant tour. There was a few young guys as well, a few young faces. And a lot of Ulster guys doing really well. And we just brought that to Chicago again, brought another level of just being clinical and obviously created history. And that will never change. We'll always be the first Irish team to beat the All Blacks, and that's a massive thing to be proud of. And I feel I contributed to that win. And then to top it off, the win against Australia."

The danger for Trimble now is in trying too hard to be the one to lead Ulster into the light. He was blessed not to be carded last weekend against Scarlets in the same move that gave Sean Reidy yellow - compounded by a penalty try that cost them the game. The new emphasis on penalising high tackles will decide a lot more matches than heretofore.

So, extra responsibility then for the captain who frequently finds himself as the last man in defence, having to step in to close down man and ball. It did for them in Parc y Scarlets, though just as easily it might rescue them somewhere else. Wherever, they need help. They need something to go right for them, starting this afternoon. "We've been banging on the door for a few years and getting close and that disappointment pushes you on a bit," he says. "You can get unlucky once or twice, but eventually if you keep on being unlucky there's a reason for that. We've got to become a side that's more clinical and gets the job done.

"No one knows the secret formula of having that mindset. It's difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is. It could be two or three things, but it's likely to be small issues that have a big impact. Just that last pass: if it sticks it's seven points, if it doesn't it's nothing. So that's the difference between winning and losing - one moment in a game and it can come down to focus and winning that moment. Yeah, that's something we're working on and trying to get better, trying to make sure we own those moments and make then ours."

Trimble might not swap the downside of pro sport for the humdrum of the real world. But he'd like a few more breaks before he signs off.

Exeter Chiefs v Ulster

BT Sport 2, 5.30

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