Saturday’s Magners League clash with the second-placed Cardiff Blues affords Matt Williams another chance to blood some young players, a policy which the Ulster coach is determined to stick with.
Williams’ admirable decision to use away games to give Ulster’s young players a chance to experience ‘high pressure rugby’ is a move that he hopes will pay dividends in seasons to come.
The Australian admitted: “Our away record is not what we want and except and we are going to address that and take it on as a task but we’re not going to stop blooding our young guys because they’re learning about being away from home.
“It is hard rugby, high pressure rugby and if you make an error you get punished. But it is great to give young guys the opportunity as well.
“They are going to be here next season and taking Ulster forward. There will be tough situations during that time and at least if they have the experience of what it is like in tough environments then that will bode them well.”
For the trip to the Welsh capital, Williams has included the likes of Darren Cave (21) and Stuart Philpott (22) in Ulster’s extended squad and both could get a run-out against the Blues.
Particularly hooker Philpott who could be called up for bench duty as Ulster captain Rory Best is nursing a groin injury and may not make the matchday squad, with Nigel Brady standing by to start.
“We will be giving some of the boys a chance. Not all of them. If we put out 10 (youngsters), then that is not healthy. But it we put out three or four starting and two or three on the bench here or there, it will give them time and experience.
“That is what they crave and that is what they will get. We must look ahead and plan for the future,” added the Ulster boss.
One of the young players currently thriving in the Ulster set-up is out-half Niall O’Connor. The former Ireland Under-20 international has donned the number 10 jersey for all five of Williams’ Magners League games since he took charge of the province.
Commenting on the progress of the Belfast Harlequins clubman, Williams said: “This is Niall’s third away game and all three have been against Heineken Cup quarter-finalists, he’s been to Munster, the Ospreys and now away to Cardiff and he is just going to get better by doing that.
“He has been wonderful for his age and I have to keep telling everyone he is only 20. Most of us didn’t know what way was up at 20 but this kid is out playing rugby.
“He is dedicated, he’s hard working and he’s going to make mistakes but we have just got to live with that and keep supporting and encouraging him.
“And in a couple of years when he wins the championship for us we can sit back and enjoy it.”
But O’Connor will face a big challenge for the out-half berth next season when Ian Humphreys, who recently agreed a two-year deal with Ulster, returns to play for his home province.
Obviously relishing the prospect of having three out-halves in his squad in O’Connor, Humphreys and Paddy Wallace, Williams was particularly pleased to secure the services of David Humphreys’ 25-year-old brother.
“Ian went away and has become a really good top quality professional player. He led Leicester around the field when they beat Munster and we don’t need to waste money on an overseas player.
“I have watched Ian many times, when he played for Dungannon and for the Ireland ‘A’ side. He has improved immeasurably in his game and physically he will be a great asset for us.”