Pound for pound, James Hume might well be the form centre in all of Ireland at present. For the 23-year-old, though, it’s the kilos that matter.
While nobody who saw the Belfast boy helping Methody win three consecutive Schools’ Cup titles from 2015 would ever have had any doubts over his talent, to be readying himself to push the likes of Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw for Six Nations spots still less than five years on from that last St Patrick’s Day in black and yellow represents a rapid rise.
Reflecting upon this progress, Hume believes it was tipping the scales that has swung the balance in his favour.
“Thinking about my diet in school, it’s almost comical thinking about what I was doing compared to what I eat now,” says the man who will once again be in the Ulster ‘13’ jersey for this evening’s visit from Clermont.
“When I went away with the Irish under-19s in France, I think I hit 104.6kg. I’m currently in the low 96s.
“Steph (Stephanie Gleadhill), our nutritionist when I came back, she just said ‘look, you’ve got to do something about your weight here, you’re far too heavy.’
“Consequently I ended up getting a stress fracture in my foot, probably from carrying too much weight, and after that I was out for seven months.
“That period allowed me to get back into shape and it was a big learning curve. My girlfriend will tell you, now I’m so pernickety with my food. I’m almost scared of eating the wrong food and getting back into those ways. It’s a moving beast trying to get the diet right and stay in shape.”
The benefits have been there for all to see. Think back on those breaks that Hume has made such a regular feature of his game, that ability to get to the outside shoulder of his opponent, like for the crucial opening try against Leinster in the RDS earlier this winter.
He believes it is this more slender physique that has allowed him to make footwork in the split seconds before contact, a real strength of his game.
“When I left and started to lose a bit of weight and got into better shape, I found that footwork was a good strength for me,” he says, as he targets an addition to his sole Irish cap in the coming months.
“It’s something that I’ve tried to bring into my game. I obviously know that from playing against some great players, that when they have good footwork how hard it is to defend. I think that’s a massive thing in my game that I’ve tried to focus on, to keep progressing my strengths and find ways to manipulate defenders using my footwork.”
If an improving physique was part of adapting to what was required at the top level, there remains a sense that Hume’s game has gone to even greater heights over the past two months.
Coming off the back of being an unused squad member by Andy Farrell for the Autumn Internationals, Hume believes the step forward has been mental.
From scoring the winning try in Ulster’s first win in the RDS since 2013, through to strong showings against Clermont and Northampton in the Champions Cup, he has looked every inch an international outside centre.
“I had a period of reflection after the Autumn Nations, I came back looking at what I could do and nailed down some focus points that I really wanted to work on over this next block of games. I feel like it’s gone well. I’ve still got a lot to work on but thus far I think I put my best foot forward to get selected in that squad.
“I had a good conversation (with Andy Farrell) the day before I left camp to come home.
“He was just asking me how I thought the autumn went. It was just about consistently being at that highest level and consistently performing there.
“Whether that’s working off the ball, making good decisions, being consistently focused, he said it was in my hands with this block of games and what I was going to do with them. I could go one way or the other.
“It was a positive chat, there were a lot of good things said, but that was the one thing where I was just falling behind and now it’s about trying to execute that as well as possible.” His form since has brought a surge of self-belief, a timely boost for a player who, despite outward appearances, feels that even as recently as earlier this season he struggled to see himself on the same level as those he’ll be rubbing shoulders with next week when the Irish squad assembles.
“I did take great confidence from that Leinster game because I have massive respect for Robbie Henshaw,” he adds.
“He’s probably the best centre in the world. Coming up against him and holding my own is a huge marker for me. I was thinking ‘I know how good he is but I also know the threat I can pose’ and I carried that into the Clermont game and so on.
Going away to Clermont in Europe, putting in a good performance against European giants, it’s a massive confidence boost.
“Even if times do get tough in the future I can look back on that and say I’m more than capable of being able to put out a performance there and just get myself back to my pillars, my basics.
“Up until, say, even the start of this season, I’d be bricking it going into games, thinking ‘what if I don’t perform well here? What if the other players make me look stupid? What if I’m not good enough?
“I think those Leinster and Clermont weeks were the ones when I really was like ‘I can do this’ and it kind of followed on into Northampton, Munster, Northampton again where I can look at those and say ‘I am good enough at that level to put in a performance.’
“It’s to know what I’m good at and not going outside of my house, my basic skills and what I do”
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, A Curtis, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell; M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Replacements: B Roberts, J McGrath, T O’Toole, S Carter, G Jones, D Shanahan, B Moxham, C Gilroy.
Clermont: C Ti-berghien; M O’Connor, JP Barraque, T Vili, A Raka; JJ Hanrahan, M Parra; E Falgoux, Y Beheregaray, R Slimani; P Jedrasiak, T Lavanini; J Cancoriet (capt), L Dessaigne, J van Tonder. Replacements: E Fourcade, D Bibi Biwizu, C Ojovan, S Vahaamahina, F Lee, K Viallard, C Lopez, D Penaud.
Ref: L Pearce (Eng)
Ulster v Stade Francais, 5.30, BT Sport 2
How you beat them
Ulster showed no fear in the reverse fixture in France, and they need more of the same attacking intent in front of their own supporters.
Stuart McCloskey is an obvious loss and with his deputy Stewart Moore now also ruled out, there is big pressure on Angus Curtis to link as well with the in-form James Hume. It all starts up front though, where Ulster must match Clermont’s power.
How they beat you
They may not be the force of old and while they are also missing some key men, Clermont still have enough threats to hurt Ulster. They will look to get the edge in the pack and build from there, with the likes of Rabah Slimani and Tomás Lavanini well up for the fight in more ways than one.
JJ Hanrahan (out-half)
News of a possible move to the Dragons at the end of the season would mean the Kerry native only spends one season in France. He gets the nod here and won’t lack motivation to deliver on Irish soil.