Stuart Olding determined to seize day with Ireland

Centre eager to play his part in the Ulster resurgence in Irish backline

He has the scars to prove it, a long, diagonal and slightly zig-zagged red line from above his right knee to below it and another on his left elbow. They’re reminders, if he were to ever need them, of the two operations on his anterior cruciate ligament and another on his ulnar collateral ligament which have disrupted a career of huge potential. Until now perhaps.

"It's been a bit of a nightmare," he says, smiling, "but I've come out the right side of it." Such an attitude is typical of him. Clever, funny and good-humoured, Olding is a popular player within the Ulster and Ireland set-ups.

He's also inordinately gifted: a well balanced runner with a low centre of gravity, a wicked sidestep off both feet, a very good passing game and – quick too – he is a good finisher to boot. He could give the Irish midfield a serious X factor today. No wonder Joe Schmidt is such a fan, and likened him to Gordon D'Arcy this week. And he can goal-kick too.

Akin to D’Arcy, Olding’s ability has seen him play at outhalf initially, centre and fullback before finally, maybe, settling on inside centre, whereas D’Arcy was a fullback who sometimes turned winger and outside centre before also settling on the 12 spot.


Ask him his preference though, and he doesn’t blink. “Twelve would be my preference. I enjoy 12 because you’re close enough to the ball but you also have a lot of time on the ball as well and you can see things; try to pick some holes and be right in the mix, and that’s exactly where I want to be; right in the mix of everything.”

Running with the ball

Fullback is a bit of fun too though. “Yeah,” he admits with a laugh, “I really do enjoy counter-attacking. I love running with the ball, so yeah I like when they kick the ball to you and you’ve got plenty of space to run and just have a go. I really do enjoy that, but I prefer 12.”

That Olding was destined to be a rugby player was never much in doubt, pretty much from birth really. In his “prep” school days, a teacher asked Olding’s class to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up. “The boys were writing doctor and vet, and I just wrote ‘rugby player’. It’s all I ever wanted to do.” Olding was seven-years-old at the time.

His father, Gary, played rugby with the Academy club and coached all three of his sons’ teams at various stages. He took the boys to Ravenhill, where they had season tickets, and to Lansdowne Road for Ireland games.

"From an early age we went to pretty much every Irish match we could in the Six Nations and the November series. We're just a big rugby family."

As soon as he could run, his brothers Ross (six years older) and Paul (two years older) introduced him to the game in their back garden, and, as older brothers do, toughened him up plenty. With three rugby playing boys, their mother Lyn had plenty of additional laundry, as well as chauffeuring. “Yep, and plenty of cuts to plaster.”

As with Iain Henderson, he went to Ben Madigan school and began playing when he was five or six. "Our dads would be really good mates. They went to Ben Madigan and BRA together."

Like Olding senior, Gordon Henderson also coached their respective sons' underage teams along the way, and the two boys also emulated their dads in playing mini rugby in the Academy club.

His dad is still a sounding board. “Whenever we talk he’d say, ‘I’m just an old guy who played prop. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nah, he’s always there for a chat and I talk to him whenever I need him. He’s always been there for me.”

He cut his teeth at outhalf, and was the starting 10 for his last two years at Belfast Royal Academy, playing in a losing Ulster Schools Cup final with Henderson, who was a year above him, in 2010. The following year Olding was ruled out from their quarter-final defeat with an ankle sprain.

Paddy Jackson, at rivals Methody, was also a year above Olding, although the pair never got to play against each other, in part because of representative duties. Olding's BRA campaigns earned him recognition with both the Ulster and Irish under-18s and under-20s, and he was part of the travelling squad, but not the match-day 23, which beat South Africa in the 2012 Under-20 World Cup in Stellenbosch, although he was a sub in the ensuing games against England and Italy, and started the knockout games against England and France.

“That was my first taste of proper, international tournament rugby and it was just incredible. It opened my eyes as to what I needed to do to get up to senior level.”

Bulking up was his primary objective, although he never took his basics for granted. “I would always say, ‘don’t get bored with the things you’re good at. That’s what got you to where you are.’”

“The other thing was my size. I was quite small coming out of school into the Ulster academy, and they helped me put on a good bit of weight.” Entering the academy, he was touching 80kg, but within three years he was around his current mark of 92kg.

On leaving school, Olding also joined Belfast Harlequins, and after two years in the academy was promoted to a development contract before a professional contract for the last two seasons.

First cap

David Humphreys and Paddy Wallace were the players he aspired to emulate. "I just loved the way they played. They always liked to run the ball, had good footwork and a good kicking game. Similar styles. I came through the academy and took what I could from Brian McLaughlin. He gave me my first cap and I owe a lot to him and all the coaches, Doaky [Neil Doak], Clarkey [Allen Clarke], Les [Kiss]."

With Jackson also a year ahead of him, Olding’s outhalf days were numbered. Of his 48 caps for Ulster, he reckons only three have been at 10.

In his second year in the academy, a combination of injuries and the tragic death of Nevin Spence, resulted in Olding playing the second half of the 2012-13 season. Ulster reached the final at the RDS, where they lost to Leinster.

With the Lions touring Australia in 2013, Olding was called into the Ireland squad to tour North America in the summer of 2013, with Les Kiss as the interim head coach, and he made his debut against the Eagles at inside centre.

“I was really, really nervous about two or three days before, but then that was overtaken by excitement. It’s a different sort of build-up to a game over there, with the American fans all tail-gating outside the stadium. That was pretty cool. It was really, really hot and very humid, but I just wanted to get my hands on the ball as much as I could.

"I thought I played well, but I didn't make the squad for the Canada game the next week and I was really annoyed about that. I just wanted to play as much as I could. But James Downey played 12 in that game and he was a class player and had trained very well.

“But I sat down in the changing room after the [USA] game and just had a huge sense of relief. It had been one of my ambitions since I was young.”

His second cap was for 17 minutes off the bench against Georgia in November 2014, which he marked with a try when taking an inside line off Ian Keatley’s switch pass and scoring untouched from 30 metres out. “When I came on we were getting good go-forward ball. We scored some really nice tries that day and to get my own was pretty special, scoring at home in front of everyone. My parents and Paul were there as well.”

He’d have hoped for more caps by now. He’d already suffered his first ACL rupture playing for Ulster A in November 2013, which ruled out the remainder of that season. Whereupon, in January 2015, he suffered his torn UCL in a game where, bizarrely, Jackson also dislocated his UCL.

Sidelined for eight weeks, in his first game back at home to Cardiff the following March, he torn the ACL in his right knee for a second time. “I knew exactly when it had happened, straight away, just from the feeling. You could hear it pop.”

Confined to rehab

Cue another nine-month rehabilitation. Initially, he was confined to rehab and upper body weights before, three or four months in, he could start to run again. “It’s actually pretty intense. You go home and see your family and friends to get away from it.”

It sounds grim.

"To be honest, it flew. I owe a lot to Kevin Geary, our S&C coach at Ulster. He did every weight session, every running session, every conditioning session with me. I would probably have gone insane if I was doing it by myself."

His first game back was in January for Ulster A away to Bristol. “I was as prepared as I was ever going to be for that game. Don’t think about it [the injury] and just play rugby.”

He marked his return at inside centre a week later with the try that sealed Ulster’s bonus-point win away to Treviso, starting a run of six straight games at both fullback and centre. So he arrived in good nick, having had a run of 12 games, eight of them starting.

The selection of six Ulster backs in these first two Tests – and that's without the injured Tommy Bowe and the absent Stuart McCloskey and Darren Cave – reflects the potent way they have used their backline in the latter stages of this season. "And we're bringing in Charles Piutau next season, so it's going to be difficult enough to get in that backline."

But right now he doesn’t want this season to end. Likewise, he says of the 14-man win in the first Test, “that was last week, this is this week, and hopefully we can make a bit more history”.

The admiration between Schmidt and Olding is mutual. “His attention to detail is phenomenal. You just want to perform in every single training session and every game.”

His plan is to stay injury-free, and he touches the wooden table in front of him. “I’ve still got plenty of goals to achieve. Until they’re done, I’ll keep on working.”

Touch wood indeed, Olding is only starting.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times