Comfortable in his own skin
Andrew Trimble has been sidelined by Ireland but he's still a key figure at Ulster, says Brendan Fanning
Here are a couple of points north and south on Andrew Trimble's compass this season. The good stuff has come on his home patch in Ravenhill. The dips occur every time he gets into his car and spins down to Ireland squad sessions in Carton House.
Let's start with the positive.
In the week leading up to what has been the high watermark of Ulster's season – the away game in the Heineken Cup against Northampton Saints, on December 7 – it was clear which way coach Mark Anscombe was going to go with his back three. And Andrew Trimble never felt better about himself.
Declan Kidney had gone out on a limb by reversing the pecking order in Ulster, and running with the rookie Craig Gilroy in the pivotal game against Argentina. He was then rewarded with the new man scoring, and looking sensational.
Then Gilroy was kept off Ulster's media menu in that first week back on provincial duty. It was sold discreetly as a move to shelter him from the storm of interest blowing up around him after his terrific international series. Rather it was about letting Gilroy's tyres down slowly instead of having them punctured in public. Anscombe was sticking with Trimble.
In a game that stands out by a country mile as the most comprehensive display by any Irish province anywhere this season, the 28-year-old was excellent. Aggressive and clinical and looking every inch a killer wing, he made Anscombe feel that he was as good a selector as he is a coach, and they are by no means the same thing.
"I really, really take a lot of confidence from the fact that Mark rates me highly," Trimble says. "That gives me a buzz and a lift and it probably puts a little bit of responsibility on me to back him up. And I feel that, more often than not, I do that and I'm really pleased with the way that works. It's not the same with Ireland but I don't know how to remedy that. The only thing I can do is to keep training hard, keep trying to play well, keep trying to stay confident and do the things that I feel I do well."
Point the compass south and you land in the four-star golf world of Carton House. When the Ireland squad convened there before the Six Nations, one of the little items on their agenda was to get suited and booted in British and Irish Lions gear – just to get the measurement details, you understand. This was a logistical exercise, carried out in each country, not a selection process. Still, anyone with a heartbeat would have thought only of not having to hand it back.
"You let yourself daydream, you know?" he says. "You let yourself think: this would be such an amazing experience; I would absolutely love it; it would be an amazing bit of my career; looking back on it and telling stories about the Lions. All that stuff goes through your head. And then I remember after getting kitted out I went up to my room and the itinerary came under the door and I was in the squad for the Wolfhounds for the England game. That was just, you know, sort of checking myself and realising . . .
"I'd been playing pretty well for Ulster and was scoring a lot of tries and getting my hands on the ball quite a bit, and then to be in the Wolfhounds, I thought maybe it's just another chance to prove (myself) – but then it wasn't, really. It was a reflection of where Declan sees me."
There was a time when an Andrew Trimble interview featured as much about his life as a Christian as his rugby. Something of a novelty when he burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old in 2005, these days it's like talking to two different people. The first was wedded to his faith, a shy, earnest young man on a respectful mission to get his message across; the second is so comfortable with what he is about now that he doesn't have to try and convince anyone of anything.
Well, maybe Declan Kidney if the Ireland coach was staying in the job. In a business of opinions Kidney's view of Trimble was never that high. In a Championship season of record casualties this year, Trimble never got past holding a tackle bag, or beyond travelling a discreet distance behind the match-day squad in case there was an outbreak of cholera among the replacements on the morning of a match.
He didn't come shining through the defeat by South Africa in November, but with Trimble it has never taken much to leave him out. The hardest part is being close enough to think he might get in.
It had its funny side though in the wrap-up weekend in Rome. Along with Donncha O'Callaghan, he was on disaster watch, numbered 24 and 25 respectively in a 23-man squad. They took themselves away from the group to do some sightseeing. When they got to the Coliseum, the crowd of Paddies was so large that business dried up for the Gladiators who hustle for posed photographs.
They escaped onto a sightseers' bus, and promptly passed – waving to them, as you would – Keith Earls and Conor Murray out for a stroll. Next stop Vatican City, with O'Callaghan looking to make a conversion.
"It was quite a balanced experience," Trimble says. "It could have been a cross-community project, we could have got funding from the Northern Ireland assembly!"
Still, the closest they got to the Test match action was doing a few shuttle runs with the replacements afterwards. They skipped the debrief in the changing room. Trimble is getting used to being close enough to see but not feel.
Did he never think that it would be worth his while to sit the coach down and try and get it clear in black and white exactly what he needed to do to get a regular spot?
"I have said that in the past," he says. "I have been honest. I feel like I can't help myself. Even with you guys, I feel like I sometimes say too much. I feel like maybe I am a little bit too honest and I have been like that with Declan in the past. I wouldn't want him to say anything that I'd said to him and so I'm not going to say too much (now). But those conversations – sometimes I feel like I can get a bit off my chest and maybe that's good for me but ultimately it's not what I want to achieve. I don't want to feel better about a conversation like that. I want to get selected, and I can't select myself so . . ."
So all he can do is maintain form for Ulster, where he started this weekend one touchdown away from his season's best tally of 10, and do his bit to lead them in and out of Twickenham on Saturday in one piece. Against a Saracens side in top form that will be an outside bet given Ulster's transition from men who couldn't lose to men struggling to win. Losing the second leg of the Saints tie was their first defeat of a season that, including friendlies, had produced 16 straight wins.
"At the time I thought it was a speed bump and we'd get back on track," he says. "It's affected the season really. If we'd won that game, we'd have got a home quarter-final so it definitely has affected things. It was a blip and it was just stupid.
"We're far better than that and we showed that away to them the week before with that performance we put together. Everything just worked out perfectly for us. You don't often have these flawless performances but that was one of those nights. That really made us think that we're a class team and we're capable of producing big performances, big wins away from home in the Heineken Cup.
"It was a massive confidence-builder and I think the two things that we needed all season were the confidence to know that we are a quality side and that we can win big games, and then as well as that we just have to have the mindset to get ourselves right for the game, to do our homework on all the small things we were talking about.
"And maybe we just had a lapse in concentration that week. Even that week training it didn't feel right. We felt like we could turn up, and it just didn't happen. I think it shows that it's good to have that confidence, but you need to back it up with the right mindset as well."
Despite the lack of recognition on Test match days, Trimble was boosted and pleasantly surprised before Christmas to pick up a two-year extension on his international deal. It reminded him that you never know what's around the corner, which, in a Lions year, can be bountiful. First he has to get Ulster back to where they were pre-Christmas.
"Every game we went out and we just knew we were going to win," he says. "There was a buzz. That was only three-four months ago – it's not that long and we're exactly the same side. A couple of injuries, a couple of guys away with Ireland and it just upset things a little bit, but not significantly.
"It shouldn't be the case that that's going to wreck our buzz or wreck the atmosphere of the culture or the way that we want to play, that we've developed over the course of the first few months of the season. It's still there, it's still something that we should definitely get back to. I think deep down we all know that we're going to come good but it's just concerning. The next game is just massive for us. It has to come good now. This is the acid test: the Heineken Cup knockout stages; this is where you find out how good you are really."
Compass pointing north then.