This morning saw the Ulster squad and management depart for a five-day training camp in the south of France. With the RaboDirect PRO 12 fast approaching, the province’s operations director David Humphreys is keen to see how some of the younger players get on.
It is a change of scenery for the Ulster players, moving from their regular training base at Newforge to the somewhat more glamorous and sunnier climes of Biarritz.
Brian McLaughlin’s men will be based in the town of Capbreton for the duration of their time in the south of France.
Although the week will play out much the same as when they are at Newforge, the break away from home is a important part of the province’s pre-season schedule.
Their operations director David Humphreys said: “When you train somewhere all summer you need a change of surroundings. We’re nearing the end of what has been a very long, tough period for the players.
“This camp is a chance to get away for a few days and come back refreshed for the start of the season.”
Temperatures are currently in the mid-to-high 20s in the south of France, but this is no holiday camp for the Ulstermen.
The players will train on Monday and Tuesday ahead of a friendly match against Bayonne on Wednesday, followed by a recovery session and review on Thursday.
Commenting on the pre-season opener, Humphreys added: “To be honest, the game, in terms of a result, is not hugely significant for us – the purpose of the match was to get a camp and to give game-time to some players who wouldn’t ordinarily get it.
“I do think Bayonne will be quite strong as their league season starts the following week but for us the game isn’t that important.
“Our camp is about preparation, and this match is the first of three friendlies and every one of them is a step towards competitive rugby.
“We’ll do things a little differently in each game so that by the time we come to play Glasgow in the first round of the Pro12 everybody has clicked back into what is a match week and the season is off and running again.”
The majority of Ulster’s players have been in pre-season since June 20 and they include the Phoenix Academy members, who have worked with the rest of the senior squad on improving their skills and physicality.
“A lot of our senior players have been away, so we’ve brought in our Academy players who have worked very hard this summer,” said the former Ulster and Ireland out-half.
“The camp is an opportunity for many of them to get a first taste of playing without the leaders around them. Last season the Academy players went through pre-season with us and some went on to make an impact.
“We feel that giving them the exposure at an earlier stage has been a way of fast-tracking them into the squad. Camp will give us an indication of which players are ready to step up into the PRO12.
“It’s also a chance for the players to put into practice what we’ve been working on over the course of pre-season and for us to see if it’s working or if there’s still some fine-tuning to do before we get into our competitive fixtures.”
Asked if the management have made any changes to the pre-season programme this summer, Humphreys replied: “Jonny Davis, our head of strength & conditioning, has had full control of how the structure of the pre-season works, but one of the big changes this season is that we’ve brought skill development in from day one.
“Traditionally we would have done a number of weeks without the ball where the focus is on the physical side and we’re pushing the players to the limit.
“But we’ve managed to do that this year with the ball involved and we think at this stage that our skills are much better than they were last year as a result.
“This has also given us the opportunity to look at the younger players in a more rugby-orientated environment which will allow us to make decisions on whether they play or not.”