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Afoa timed Ulster arrival to perfection

John Afoa could have been forgiven for thinking he had got his timing wrong when, within weeks of his arrival in Belfast, the IRFU announced a spate of restrictions on the number of non-Irish qualified players and the length of time they could spend with the provinces.

The Kiwi had been diligent in his research before agreeing to the move. A lifetime with the Blues had taught him about the value of ‘family’ at a club and in Ulster he sensed a familiar environment.

David Humphreys was puttingtogether a squad lined with both indigenous and global pedigree and, at 28, Afoa felt his experience could be put to good use on the field and the training paddock where the club’s academy was fashioning the future.

All the pieces fitted.

"The timing has been excellent," he said this week ahead of tomorrow’s Heineken Cup tie against Glasgow Warriors. "I remember when I first came here the club was just on the rise and in the last two years they have brought in players that have added to the team, not just on the field but to the whole culture of the team. And we are still a young team.

"There are just a couple of guys over 30. Most of the guys are still in their 20s, so there is a nucleus here for a good team to go on and the key for us is that we are still learning and trying to play our best rugby week in and week out because that [lack of] consistency was our biggest thing last year."

Moving was no whim. With a wife and two children, Afoa had more than just himself to think about when he put pen to paper in 2011 but he had a feeling the Ulster and Kiwi sensibilities were a good match and his time here has confirmed that hunch.

You get the feeling he would be perfectly happy to greet retirement with a send-off at Ravenhill and if it were just up to him and the club there is little doubt but that he would. The IRFU’s stipulations may deem otherwise, of course.

"I never really worry about it. I know that I am here for another year-and-a-half so there is no need to worry about it. I think a lot of the guys are in a similar situation. We know we have a good team and a good squad and we are going to be around for a few years.

"We have all bought into the team and we are growing every week and the key for us is to make sure that we have some silverware at the end of the year because it comes down to winning games and winning trophies."

That is, in many respects, the toughest step of them all.

Afoa spent seven years at the Blues and failed to breach the semi-final barrier in Super Rugby but he was a member of the New Zealand squad which ended an embarrassing 24-year wait for a second Rugby World Cup victory two years ago.

It is seven years now since Ulster got their hands on a tin cup but Afoa knows all they can do is take care of business between now and May and hope they can surface at the sharp end of both campaigns with hopes intact and an injury-free roster.

To do that they will have to dispense with Glasgow tomorrow despite the absence of a core of key players; Johann Muller, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris among them, but it is a mark of their progression that such a state of affairs is no cause for alarm.

Accumulate five points at home this week and Mark Anscombe’s side will know their hopes of finishing top of Pool Four will not entirely rest on winning for the first time in France — not that Afoa would be concerned.

"If it comes down to it and we have to go to Castres to win then that’s what it comes down to and it would be another measure of this team if we were able to go away and win a big game when we need to. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that, though."