Paddy Wallace defended David Humphries’ extensive global recruitment policy, one that will likely see five non-Irish qualified players start for Ulster in Saturday’s Heineken Cup final.
Stefan Terblanche, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg are all expected to line up against a Leinster team that, with Richardt Strauss now Irish-qualified, will probably begin with just Isa Nacewa and Brad Thorn from its international brigade.
Ulster’s percentage doesn’t sit well with everyone but every signing was given the green light by an IRFU that has since attempted to reduce the numbers of such players among the three leading provinces.
“There’s that debate on whether the foreign influence has taken away from the Irish team,” said Wallace. “I certainly don’t think so. Working day in, day out with these guys, everybody else in our team betters themselves. Take those players out of our team and Ulster aren’t as competitive in Europe. As a result, I wouldn’t be as confident a player because I’m not winning games.”
Whatever about the heavy South African influence, the argument could be made that Irish rugby would be better served by an Ulster win. And Ulster’s more recent signings are in keeping with the union’s homegrown leanings with Roger Wilson arriving from Northampton in place of Wannenburg and Tommy Bowe repatriated from the Ospreys.
Yet, as Wallace pointed out, this can’t be viewed as a numbers game. With foreign players, it has been quality over quantity and no-one emphasises that more than Muller who is a mix of captain, coach and spiritual leader.
“He is a good guy to have on your team,” said Wallace. “He’ll take the battle to the management if we feel as a squad it has to be taken. Rory [Best] does that as well. He is such a good leader.”
Like Best, Wallace has suffered through the bad times. Nobody has suffered more, in fact, given he first lined out for Ulster back in 2001, when the glow of that 1999 European success was beginning to dim.
He was a student in Dublin at the time and played for UCD against Terenure in an U20s game the morning after what must have been a punishing night but remembers, too, the four May days since when his buddies on the Irish team lifted the same trophy. None were easy.
“Mixed emotions really. Envy. You’re happy to see your mates doing well, but you want to be there yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to take. You’re happy when they win, but you want to be there. It seemed so far away for us for so long.
“We’ve been through some disappointing times, but we’ve got to forget that and use it as motivation now. We’ve worked so hard to get to where we are and we don’t want to let it go. It would be nice for the CV to win.”
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