Older, wiser and revelling in every ounce of pressure
Paddy Wallace is in a good place right now and he believes that Ulster are too, as he tells Brendan Fanning
A t 31, he is the oldest in the Ulster squad now that Bryn Cunningham has moved on. "Can you actually believe that?" he asks. Well no, at least not without checking first.
One thing you don't associate Paddy Wallace with is being the grand old man of any group. It doesn't seem that long since Eddie O'Sullivan was giving him his first start in green, against the Pacific Islands in 2006. It was Ireland's last Test at the old ground, and Wallace scored 26 points.
But, as the most senior of a young squad, old he is. Old and content with what he sees about the place. "I'm enjoying it immensely and I'm encouraged by all the youth around me now. It keeps you going and keeps you invigorated and energetic." You'd swear he was 60.
It's a feature of Ulster these days that they are not short on fresh blood. And all of it swilling around the midfield where Wallace has been doing a job since 2001. They are the only province this season to have given regular, competitive gametime to -- including Wallace -- five home-grown centres: from the pair who won caps in North America 18 months ago, Ian Whitten and Darren Cave, to the latest and youngest to be transfused, Luke Marshall and Nevin Spence.
We remember a few years back Ian Paisley's vehement opposition to any suggestions that Norn Iron should -- like the Papish south -- have fluoride added to their water, but perhaps there's some other element added to the mix up there that is producing men for the midfield?
"Yeah, it's strange, but it could be seen as cyclical because for so long it was Leinster and Munster producing the majority of the backs in squads for Ireland," he says. "But there's a few up here now and I see a lot of promise in (outhalf) Paddy Jackson as well. Luke Marshall has definitely shown that he's well capable of playing at Magners League level and maybe more, and obviously Nevin (Spence) has really hit his straps this season as well. We have good talent coming out of the Academy and feeding into the senior side and you need a strong coach to give these boys a chance to go out and show what they're capable of."
Wallace is mindful of them. It's interesting that when you ask him about 12 and 10, the seats he occupies for Ulster and sometimes for Ireland, the first thing he mentions is the impact it can have on the Ulster team, his hopping from one spot to the other.
"I guess so long as it's not too disruptive to Ulster, that's the main concern for me -- that it affects Ian's (Humphreys) development there, and the team's progression because one position in the team that you can do with consistency in is your 10. As long as I'm not breaking that up whenever I play there then I don't see it as a huge problem.
"From a personal point of view, if the Irish coach wants you to play in a couple of positions to increase your versatility in terms of a World Cup year coming up then obviously I take that very seriously. And whenever I get any opportunity to do it then it's up to me to show that I'm capable of playing in a couple of positions.
"Playing 10 adds maybe a wee bit more pressure and then there's more when you add in the goal-kicking as well. You don't have that level of responsibility playing at inside but you can certainly help out and ease your 10's workload because you've played there. I'd probably rather play 12 but you've seen it so many times: as players get older they get pushed closer to the scrum, so I suppose in the next few years . . . ?"
Given the way he has been knocked around, it is encouraging to hear Wallace talking that far into the future. He's blessed to still be earning a crust from the game. He went through a phase in 2009 when he looked like he had been playing front row never mind 12. If there was somebody to be stitched then chances were it would be Wallace. And, more worryingly, if there was someone about to get their bell rung he was in line for that one too. He was concussed just once during that Six Nations but there had been other episodes. Watching it felt like tuning into a documentary on A&E.
Against France, Jamie Heaslip's studs connected around Wallace's eye and it required 28 stitches to close the wound. You imagine Joe Public after this level of treatment, slumped on a trolley for the rest of the day. Wallace went back on the field. Then came off again. Then went back. And finally he called it a day when he couldn't see for the blood flowing into his eye.
Italy were next up, eight days later. And it was Brian O'Driscoll's turn to tread on Wallace's head. This time it required only a few stitches but because of the residual swelling from the French fiasco he couldn't see out of the eye. Game over again.
While these were hard to miss there had been a previous sequence of head shots that left him in a very vulnerable position. In fact, one more bang in the head for Paddy Wallace and it was career over as well as lights out.
"Yeah, we sat down and looked at things," he says. "I missed the tour in the summer (2010) and I'd missed the previous tour to the States and Canada. I took a complete break for 10 weeks (at the end of the 2009 season). I was assessed again when I came back from that 10-week lay-off and it was night and day from where I was (in terms of improvement), which certainly helped. Thankfully, I've had no recurrence of any concussions, or anything serious anyway, since that. Touch wood it's all behind me.
"It's becoming a very serious area in the game and certainly over in the USA with the NFL it's taken a lot more seriously than it used to be, with the delayed reaction to concussion further on down into players' careers. It's all being taken a lot more seriously which is a great thing from an athlete's point of view."
The way he plays now doesn't suggest that he was unduly rattled by it all? "No, I don't think so -- it's a given part of the game. All of those incidents -- or three-quarters of them -- came from clashing heads with my own team-mates or getting a bang from them rather than getting one from the opposition. They were freak occurrences. And once you get your head around that, I think it's easier to continue."
You hope it keeps fine for him, on a couple of fronts: medical firstly, and career-wise as well, starting with the long awaited march out of the Heineken Cup pool and into the quarter-finals, and then to New Zealand with Ireland in the autumn. Wallace arrived into the Ulster set-up two years after the European Cup win in '99. He has seen only barren seasons in Europe since then. Now Biarritz are coming to Ravenhill, and a win for the home team will transform their position in the pool.
"I don't think we've ever got to a point in my 10 or 11 years where we're not reliant on other results," he says. "It's in our own hands now whether or not we do it. So that's new. And are we better equipped? Yes, definitely. I think the playing personnel is better than we've ever had at Ulster. It's not an attitude of hope that we can get there, it's an actual belief, which again is new. Times have changed.
"And because there's been investment and new players have been brought in it's a huge time for us and we have to back that up. We've put in a few good performances in Europe this season and we need to top it off by reaching the goal of getting to the knock-out stages. It's good pressure to have. We won't shirk that because it's the pressure we want -- not trying to get ahead of Connacht in the Magners League to get into Europe but the pressure of beating Biarritz at home to give us a good chance of playing through the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. That's what we want."
It's a fascinating contest on Saturday. The Basques, unloved outside their territory for the often awful brand of rugby they play, and Ulster, no contenders themselves as ambassadors of the beautiful game. Sometimes they are just hard to look at. Maybe because they brought in some expensive biff they are now over-reliant on it, for when they get the ball wide early they look a different proposition.
"I'd agree with that entirely. I think we showed in the Munster game that when we play with that
bit of ambition and width we're comfortable with doing it. In the past we've tried to do that without having the skills to execute it well enough. And that probably makes the coaching staff a bit more conservative in their approach. The more we're able to produce that, the more confidence they'll have in us in playing the brand of rugby that obviously the players want to play as well. So then the reliance on the one-off runners and big carriers will be that bit less and we'll be playing rugby everybody wants to play. And I think it's more successful -- once you play it right."
So we look forward to their approach against Biarritz who in 2006 ended Ulster's interest when there was a strong squad at Ravenhill -- Justin Harrison, the Best trio, Howe, Humphreys the elder and Roger Wilson -- with high expectations of qualifying. It was even set up the same with Ulster winning first up against Italian opposition and then losing to Biarritz in the second and fifth rounds, the latter of which did for them. Losing the first leg over there this season was sobering to say the least. Wallace maintains there is no hangover.
"It absolutely within our grasp," he says. "We wouldn't see Biarritz as being 20 points better than us. We were confident at half-time (in the first leg) that we were going to come away with the points after our first-half performance. I think we learnt a good lesson that day about how good Biarritz can be whenever they get their purple patch. It's about absorbing that because they're going to come at you in their good patches and whenever they do we have to sponge that up and get the ball back and play rugby ourselves. But in terms of having them on a pedestal, that's not the case. And that won't be the case next week."
His young lad Paddy Jack will be four just before that game. He is becoming a feature at Ravenhill and it gives his old man something extra to play for.
"With a young family there as well I've got the motivation to get out there -- my son is starting to go to matches now as well. The combination of it all has me in a good, happy place right now. And it keeps me on my toes. It's energy-sapping at the best of times. I couldn't have believed five years ago that I could survive on six hours sleep a night but your body just evolves and reacts to it. But no, it's great. I'm really enjoying it all."
Not too bad for an old man.
Sunday Indo Sport