Brendan Fanning: Straight ahead on an upward curve
An insatiable hunger has seen Andrew Trimble go from one-trick pony to a man of many talents
Published 15/05/2016 | 16:00
In the start of Ulster's push to shift a few tickets for next season, they turned last week to Andrew Trimble, and then Paddy Jackson. If you were to pick their top three form players currently then Ruan Pienaar would make up the triplet. Understandably, however, they left the Springbok out of this particular masterplan.
And that involved prank calling. So Trimble had to ring up Jackson's dad, claiming he was from the Ulster ticket office, and flog the poor man a season ticket on the basis that Dan Carter had fallen out with the management at Racing and was Belfast-bound in the summer to replace the incumbent No 10, Jackson Junior.
Typical of Trimble, he put his foot on the brake before the car went over edge. Even so, when you thought back to the earnest young man who broke onto the rugby scene in 2005/06 you didn't see this kind of string being added to his bow.
You may remember that while it was his power game that got Trimble into the Ulster side and then the Ireland team, it was the devotion to his faith that put him in the media. In his early interviews he beat Katie Taylor to the punch in name checking the man above. Uber-aggressive on the field, he seemed downright timid off it.
"You see that a lot with Academy guys coming in now," he says. "Whenever they're in our company, with the older fellas, they don't say a word: they're quiet, they're shy. There'd be one-word answers. And then in the gym you'd see then training with their mates, 18/19-year-olds, all together, and they'd be mucking around, dancing, playing pranks on each other and having the crack. And it's so interesting to see the difference when they're in a comfortable environment, and then when they're put out of their comfort zone a little bit. For me that was just the same."
Trimble's development on the field has been spectacular. He started out his rugby life on the playing fields of Coleraine AI. Typically he took a two-handed approach: one to tuck the ball under his oxter; the other to hand off would-be tacklers. So if at the time you were a winger trading outside him, you wouldn't have been dining out on the supply of ball coming your way.
"No," he says. "You'd be right. You wouldn't have got any really. But you'd have been happy enough because I scored a lot! So the wingers outside me probably would have taken that."
He looks back now with some pride at the layers that have been added to his game, for not all one-trick ponies learn to get around the track. In the warm-up to the Leinster game two weeks ago for example, we took time out to watch him practise his punting with Stuart McCloskey. Over a distance of 35/40 metres, ball after ball landed in McCloskey's bread basket.
"I look back and think not just that, but moving from 13 where I played a full season to the wing, very shortly after my second season. Even that was just learning a new skill-set altogether, just totally remodelling myself, learning how to compete in the air, learning how to manipulate the backfield, or the pendulum. Everything was completely different, and because I played 13 in school I didn't really have an appreciation of the big picture. So I've always tried to develop some aspect of my game, be it my passing or kicking, my defence, loads of different ways to try and differentiate yourself or make yourself stand out from other wingers."
He will be 32 in October, and is in the form of his life. And that's a bonus given the way the season started for him. Having been voted Player of the Year by his peers in 2014, he missed the World Cup a year later on a very close call when a nine-month lay-off with a foot injury left him too much to do.
At the time he was reported by team-mates as being "devastated". Now he looks back on it as a decision that, for Joe Schmidt, was probably painful but certainly straightforward. In the World Cup warm-up game against Wales in August we saw Trimble going very well, and then hobbling off.
"I'd thought: 'After nine months out I'm straight back into rugby and feeling good here, carrying the ball well and reading the game well. I can get back here!' But your confidence gets set back as well after another injury and it takes a while to build that up. In the end it was completely fair enough that I wasn't selected.
"To be honest even when I was back to full fitness, I knew I wasn't right. Two or three games in I still didn't feel I was myself again. So it was the right decision. Why on earth would Joe have gambled on me when he has an abundance of riches there, all of them playing well?"
The odds had evened out for the coach by the time the Six Nations came around, and he slotted Trimble back in for the opener, against Wales. Sometimes you feel Schmidt looks on the Ulster wing as the perfect illustration of his transformative methods. Aerial prowess, for example, is a new weapon in Trimble's game.
"Just the mindset has changed, the mindset that a contestable kick is there to be contested," he says. "From our point of view I think that's only come into the game in the last few years. You're going: 'Why on earth did we not do this before?' And once the standards expected of you are higher you tend to raise your standards. It's a weird psychological approach to the game really. I remember when I moved to the wing first I'd be chasing box-kicks and waiting for the guy to land and trying to smash him into touch. Why not just kick it long? It would make more sense. But that's what you did at the time. In a couple of years we'll probably come up with some new realisation. It's Joe who tends to come up with them all."
Indeed you wonder what Schmidt would make of Ulster had he been at the helm over the last few years. Since Leinster caned them in the Heineken Cup final in 2012, Ulster have been hanging around without ever getting over the line. A spin around Kingspan reminds you that they are tooled up for success. Go there on match day and the crowd reinforce the point.
Since they started their four-game winning streak against Connacht - Trimble managed to get himself binned that night - momentum has swept them along very nicely. The absence of Nick Williams and Wiehahn Herbst from their pack are serious losses, but their wing is not looking for excuses.
"Absolutely. You do have some excuses from last year: the penalty off the ball for Matawalu and Glasgow get down there and took their opportunity. A couple of years ago (2013) in the Pro12 final against Leinster there were a few things you look back at but every year you seem to be making the same excuses. And yes, there's no aspect of Ulster rugby where you could say: 'This is why it's happening, or that's the reason.' We have everything handed to us: we've unbelievable facilities - great gym, great coaching staff, good playing staff as well. And we need to start winning things. There's no time like the present. Leinster have finished our season a number of times now so it's a game that we're massively up for.
"We've only won there (RDS) once in my time. Leinster have been the best side in Ireland, the best side in the league really for years. They don't win trophies year on year by mistake - they do it because they're the best side about and they continually back it up. Having said that, our performances in the last four or five weeks have been very good. It's going to take something really special to go down there and beat them."
On one of the corridors in Kingspan they are busy putting the finishing touches to a mosaic bearing the names and playing records of everyone who has worn the Ulster jersey in the professional era. It looks really well, though there aren't as many names as you might think. And only one man on 205 caps.
"I was so shy at first I just didn't want to say anything stupid," Trimble says of his early days there. "I felt like I had a lot to learn. And aside from any social aspect I think whenever you come into a squad at the start you have to earn your stripes a bit. Just shut your mouth for a year or two: say nothing, work hard and then you might have enough experience where you can pipe up with the odd suggestion or thought."
That would be now.
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