Michael Allen winging his way into Ulster reckoning
The 22-year-old is looking to grasp every opportunity as he’s up against stiff opposition for a starting place
Michael Allen: “It was nice to be recognised in terms of what you did last season.” Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho
Michael Allen will be 23 years old at the end of next month. He is Ulster’s top try scorer (three) in the RaboDirect Pro12 this season, can play wing, fullback or outside centre, is a two-time Ulster Schools Senior Cup winner with Methody, played underage international rugby and last summer was chosen for Emerging Ireland at the Tiblisi Cup in Georgia.
The shorthand details of his career to date, while impressive, come with a caveat. In trying to establish his claims for a regular starting berth at Ulster, principally at wing, he’s competing with Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and when he returns from an ankle problem within the next fortnight, Craig Gilroy. It’s a pretty difficult logjam to negotiate.
Allen focuses on a simple remit: when opportunities arise, grab them. Playing well is the most persuasive argument he can muster and certainly the most relevant.
“Obviously they’re three world class players but I can’t dwell on that. I have to try and make the most of the game time that I get but at the same time I recognise how tough it is.
Strengths and weaknesses
“My priority is to play well enough to ensure that Mark (Anscombe, Ulster coach) has a decision to make each week.”
Allen understands that looking to catch the eye in an individual context comes from adding value to the team, first and foremost. So how would he analyse his strengths and weaknesses as a player?
“On the plus side I suppose I highlight my general skill set, my pace and the fact that I enjoy the physicality of the sport. On the other hand I understand that I need to increase the amount of touches I get in the game.
“You can’t wait for the ball to come to you. If you look at the top wings and how they involve themselves in a match and, more importantly, where they pop up it reinforces what I have to be able to do as a player. It’s about reading the game, knowing when to trail the 10 or 12 and then try and make something happen if you get the ball.
“You could do that 10 times during the game and on nine occasions nothing might happen but that one when it does can be of huge value to the team.”
He’s an advocate of the harder you work the ‘luckier’ you get. Rugby has been the primary sport in his life.
“I think my first match was when I was about two weeks old and was brought down to watch North of Ireland (NIFC and Collegians merged to form Belfast Harlequins) and my Dad, Alex play. I spent my childhood in the club and loved every minute.”
The sporting genes in the family extend to Mum, Corinne, a former Northern Ireland netball international – his sister Stephanie excelled at the sport too. A brief flirtation with golf ended in an acrimonious divorce: “I kept losing my head in frustration and playing poorly would ruin a weekend.” He is still on speaking terms with squash.
Allen played fullback and centre in Methody, winning successive Ulster Schools Senior Cups, and lined for both Ireland (centre and wing) and Ulster Schools. A broken ankle in his second year out of school while in the Ulster Academy meant he had to endure a period on the sidelines.
Last summer’s Tiblisi Cup where an Emerging Ireland side took on hosts Georgia and a Springboks XV, was a reward for his continued progression. “It was a good experience in general, he admitted before pausing and adding with a laugh,” apart from being thrown in at inside centre for the game against Georgia. I was terrible. I’d never played there before and wouldn’t be rushing back.
“Everyone in that Irish squad was looking to push on. It was nice to be recognised in terms of what you did that season. In terms of standard it was like a top class Rabo (Pro12) game or a Heineken Cup match.”
He understands that versatility can be a prized commodity especially when making it into the match squad and the fact that he can play in three positions doesn’t hurt. He sees himself as a wing at present but would one day like to move in one slot to the outside centre role. For now though it’s about playing anywhere, anyplace, anytime . . . .except inside centre.