Humphreys running in the right direction
When Sean O'Brien was reminded yesterday that the vast prairies of space into which he was ushered at Ravenhill when Leinster steamrolled to victory earlier this season may not be so inviting at the RDS tomorrow night, the Tullow titan responded forcibly.
"Well, I suppose I'll just have to create my own space then!" came the verbal hand-off. One would have normally expected a group of grown men to wince in sympathy as we thought of O'Brien seeking out the rather large, imaginary bullseye on Ian Humphreys' midriff.
Well, once we might have done; these days not so much. That's not to say that Humphreys has transformed himself into a Wilkinson-esque paragon of teak-tough tackling.
Let's just say that he's escaped from the parody wherein he was ridiculed for his defence as much as he was lauded for his often outlandish, insouciant brilliance with hand and foot.
His reputation for dodgy defence, so often ascribed to him by former coaches -- and arguably levied against him by the current Ulster management when he fell out of favour at the start of this season -- will be difficult to shrug off.
He knows that reputations stick. Ask Ronan O'Gara. Heck, ask Ian's big brother, David, who won a Heineken Cup medal despite an indifferent attitude to defence for Ulster and Ireland, one which often saw him specifically shunted to the wing.
Humphreys takes the verbal tackle and, a bit like his on-field resuscitation since first featuring for Ulster in their opening Heineken Cup tie against Aironi earlier this season, offers renewed ballast.
"Yeah, that's fair comment," he says breezily ahead of tomorrow's visit to the RDS, as Ulster seek to copperfasten a potential home semi-final in the Magners League, a week after seeing similar dreams in the Heineken Cup smashed by Northampton Saints in Milton Keynes.
"Inconsistency and defence have been used by coaches previously as a black mark against my name when they weren't picking me. But apart from Llanelli a few weeks ago, my defence has been pretty good this year and it hasn't been an issue.
"Also my game management has come on. Brian McLaughlin (head coach) and Neil Doak (skills coach) have helped me. Ruan Pienaar, our scrum-half, has also been a help.
"He knows how to run the game too and he helps to make my job look easy; he's been the real success story of our season."
Humphreys can no longer be patronised with the unfortunate nickname unavoidably attached since his first emergence on the scene -- 'Baby Humphs', in reference to big brother, and current director of operations at Ulster, David.
Since returning from Leicester three years ago though, ostensibly to replace his Heineken Cup-winning sibling, 28-year-old Humphreys' struggles to establish himself mirrored that of his perennially under-achieving province.
This season has provided a breakthrough for team and player, however. A first Heineken Cup quarter-final since that seismic success in 1999 has given both a thirst for more success; despite last week's disappointment, victory tomorrow would offer tangible signs of realistic progress.
"Everybody was disappointed but it's a great game to bounce back for," Humphreys admits. "Leinster smashed us up here earlier in the campaign so we want to put on a better show and hopefully get a chance of a semi-final at home.
"Outside the squad, everyone was impressed we got to the quarter-final because it had been so long since we'd achieved that. But within the squad, we knew we could have gone even further, so that's our attitude.
"We showed we could have done that had we been a little more accurate. We want to be quarter-finalists every season and be a top-four team in the Magners League every season. It's a slow process but our desire is to be here every season."
Humphreys' return to the RDS reminds us of a day two years ago when his weak defence was becoming exposed once too often; McLaughlin's preference for Niall O'Connor at the start of this campaign confirmed that the former assistant to Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan had arrived at the same conclusion.
"It was a bit sticky at the start," he ruefully admits, prompting thoughts of particularly awkward family gatherings. "I didn't get a look-in and I had no complaint, to be honest. I didn't play until Aironi.
"Niall was playing well and the team was winning. But then he got injured against Glasgow and I took my opportunity. I've loved it, we've been winning games and playing well has made it enjoyable.
"We're one of the teams who've tried to play more rugby than a lot of others. It's good for the sport, because people want to play winning rugby and we've benefited from that, playing with a good style."
His high points have far out-weighed the negatives and he seems to have been inspired by Pienaar's much-trumpeted arrival; the scrum-half has a Dimitri Yachvili-like tendency to dominate at key points and Humphreys has benefited from this freedom.
International recognition remains an ambition propagated by those admirers beyond his closest colleagues; the duopoly of O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton, not to mention, ironically, Paddy Wallace's much-criticised role as a back-up, conspire to remove him from the picture.
"I'm not really thinking about playing international rugby," he says. "I'm not saying I don't want to play. In my head it's not going to happen unless boys get injured.
"I understand that it's a little too late, the boys have been playing very well over the past year or two.
"Everybody knows Paddy Wallace is an able deputy. This is the first year I've had a run of games for Ulster, the team is going well.
"It would be wrong to say I don't want to play for Ireland, but I'm just happy to be playing for Ulster, doing well and enjoying my rugby.
"I turn 29 in April and this is where I want to be. I left Leicester to come home and get first-team rugby, I could have easily sat on the bench, on the periphery.
"But I wanted to start to play in these competitions. There's not many years left but I want to enjoy what's left and hopefully get more games."