The Wallaby is keen to make up for lost time and leave an impression on the Champions Cup before returning to the Brumbies.
WHEN HE WATCHED Brumbies team-mate Christian Leali’ifano return from his abbreviated stay with Ulster last season, odds are Henry Speight wasn’t thinking he’d be doing the same thing just under a year later.
And yet here he is, into the last month of his brief sojourn to Ireland with its northern province as an injury joker for Louis Ludik, with his number of games remaining just four.
He has enjoyed it, make no doubt about that, and were circumstances more favourable and he didn’t have Super Rugby pre-season training to return to next month, there would probably be a strong case for him to extend the stay.
However, the Brumbies expect him back on 1 January and, once the Wallabies flyer has completed his duties in the Guinness PRO14 after Ulster travel to Connacht on December 28, he’ll be preparing to fly back down under.
“You tick into the first days of December and it’s in the back of your mind that you don’t have much longer to go. The thought of it is a bit saddening in a way,” says the 31-year-old.
“I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this club and this province and this country, so my aim is to try and help out and contribute as much as I can and hopefully watching from afar see the boys carry on and make the province and the jersey proud.”
It’s been a whirlwind experience for Speight, who had never played his rugby outside of the southern hemisphere before this season, and it’s one he’s taking plenty of positives from heading back to Super Rugby.
“I’d probably be, in the past few years, on the spring tour to the UK, then December is usually time off before the next season of Super Rugby, but this has been a big eye opener, I’ve definitely learned a lot,” he says.
“There’s quality coaching staff with Dan (McFarland) and (Dwayne) Peel, Sopes (Dan Soper) and the likes, JP’s (Jared Payne) someone who’s really transitioned into coaching really well, one of those few players who have taken to coaching like a duck takes to water.
“I’ve really learned a lot of things off them and in saying that, the players have been outstanding, I can’t speak highly enough of them.
“The leadership group drives the standard from Besty downwards, that’s a great thing to see, and culture-wise it’s probably up there with the best I’ve been part of, so there’s really something brewing here and, as I said, it’s a bit daunting having to leave a club halfway through.”
The last few games haven’t been as good as Ulster would have liked, with a 29-12 loss in Llanelli to the Scarlets – who they play tonight in the Champions Cup – and a scrappy 16-12 win over the Cardiff Blues last week far from convincing.
It’s been a far cry from the expansive, offloading game that they were playing at the start of the season and that Dan McFarland wanted to bring in when he joined the club, although the deteriorating weather has played its part. But that doesn’t stop Speight from admitting that Ulster need to be better for tonight’s tie with Scarlets in Wales [kick-off 7.45pm, BT Sport], as well as issuing a personal challenge to himself to get better before he goes.
“Form-wise it hasn’t been where I want it to be over the last few weeks, but last week was a step in the right direction and hopefully I come on strong in the next few weeks,” states the winger.
“The injury hasn’t been ideal but that’s part of rugby life, so I’ll try and make the most of it in the next few weeks.
“It’s a big work-on that I carried into last weekend, looking for work, and if that’s chasing kicks and trying to get the ball back then that’s our job this week, to be doing enough for the team. I definitely want to get more ball, whether it’s chasing kicks or running kicks back, I just want more work.”
It’s something that Speight will definitely want to do tonight in the Parc y Scarlets after that dismal night two weeks ago when their Welsh opponents effectively monopolised possession and dominated the vast majority of the game.
On that night, the Scarlets starved Ulster of the ball and forced them to defend for long patches of the game, something that won’t work tonight if they’re forced to do it again.
In the context of the pool, Ulster can take a major step towards the quarter-finals if they could pick up a massive away win at one of the fortresses of European rugby, while also knocking out the winless Scarlets at the same time.
Having defeated the Leicester Tigers in round one and then lost in Paris to Racing 92 in round two, the Irish side have four points heading into this month’s doubleheader knowing that two wins would leave them in an excellent spot to at least take one of the best runner-up spots.
For Speight, this is his last chance to play European rugby for the province before he returns home having missed the first two games due to injury, and he’s eager to prove himself on club rugby’s biggest stage.
“This is obviously one of the big tests,” he grins. “You want to come and test yourself against PRO14 opposition but to be able to cross over to the Champions Cup that is another level. It tests your ability and it’s exciting to come up against quality players.
“These two games are very important, not just to myself but as a club and our position in the pool so it’s a very important week to look forward to. We have a big challenge ahead of us but it’s exciting to be a part of it.
“I missed the last two (European) games so I want to put another performance not just that myself but as a collective we can be proud of.”
And what of the Scarlets, a team who Speight will have become very familiar with by the time he goes having played them twice already and is likely to face twice more before he leaves?
With a New Zealander in charge in Wayne Pivac, who will turn his attentions to the Wales job at the end of the season, there’s a similarity between the west Wales side and some sides Speight has played before.
“They’re very, very expansive and have threats throughout the park,” surmises the winger. We saw two weeks ago, when they decide to turn it on they can put teams away very quickly and we got the brunt of that, even though they eased up in the last ten minutes.
“We can’t give too much of a leeway for a team like the Scarlets because when they’re on, they play a style of rugby that’s quite exciting but for a defensive side it’s hard to contain.
“They’re up there, similar to Kiwi teams in how they play quite expansively and wide across the park. We have to be on top of our D this week and get on top of our discipline, that’s what hurt us the last time.”
Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne preview a big weekend of Heineken Cup action and dissect the week’s main talking points.
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud
15 Johnny McNicholl
14 Tom Prydie
13 Jonathan Davies
12 Kieron Fonotia
11 Steff Evans
10 Rhys Patchell
9 Gareth Davies
1 Rob Evans
2 Ken Owens (Captain)
3 Samson Lee
4 Lewis Rawlins
5 David Bulbring
6 Will Boyde
7 James Davies
8 Uzair Cassiem
16 Ryan Elias
17 Wyn Jones
18 Werner Kruger
19 Steve Cummins
20 Dan Davis
21 Kieran Hardy
22 Dan Jones
23 Hadleigh Parkes
15. Louis Ludik
14. Henry Speight
13. Will Addison
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney
1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Marty Moore
4. Iain Henderson
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee
16. Rob Herring
17. Kyle McCall
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Matty Rea
20. Nick Timoney
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Johnny McPhillips
23. Darren Cave
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