Stuart Olding quickly gets back in to his stride
Ulster all-rounder sets targets after recovering from anterior cruciate ligament injury
Ulster’s Stuart Olding makes a break during the province’s Pro12 draw with Scarlets at Parc y Scarlets, Wales, last Saturday. Photograph: Inpho
There were no more pleasing sights on the opening weekend of the Guinness Pro 12 than that of Stuart Olding gliding and stepping and carving his way through the Scarlets defence repeatedly in Ulster’s 32-all draw in Llanelli last Saturday.
This was confirmation that the 21-year-old has made a complete recovery from the anterior cruciate ligament injury which ended his season prematurely in November of last year and hence a reminder as well, were it needed, of his truly exceptional talent.
No one, least to say, was happier than the man himself. About the only silver lining to his injury was that the projected nine-month recovery timescale did not apply any pressure on him to make it back for any end-of-season games. Rather, he could come back in time for a good pre-season and hit the ground running in 2014-15.
“There was no rush back. Nine months took me to the end of August, so I took the rehab in stages and made sure I ticked all the boxes. Coming back now I feel very, very confident in how I feel physically, and I’m a bit stronger and a bit faster than I was before and hopefully that will translate onto the pitch.”
Five clean breaks included one where he appeared to trip up unluckily when he might have scored himself, though it still led to Ulster’s second try by Dan Tuohy. A relatively fluid, high-tempo game with both sides keen to keep the ball in hand in pleasant early-season conditions were to his liking.
“It was a good track, a good dry ball and nice weather, so it suited my game pretty well. I wanted to get the ball in hand as much as I could and fortunately enough some gaps opened up and I was able to take them.”
What really sets him apart is his footwork and running games, although with his superb handling skills, and decent kicking game, this versatile, all-rounder can play at 10, 12 and 15. “I’m enjoying playing at 12,” he said yesterday at Ulster’s media day in Ravenhill yesterday. “I like playing second receiver, and getting a bit more time and space on the ball, and you can see a bit more.”
Having then earned his first cap on the summer tour against the USA Eagles, also at 12, last season he had backed up three cameos off the bench with what he felt was his best performance in an Ulster shirt at fullback against Cardiff Blues, whereupon in the last play of a game between Ulster Ravens and the Connacht Eagles he felt his ACL pop.
“It’s the worst thing that happened to me in terms of my rugby career. I took a sidestep off my right and just felt a big pop in my knee, and before I even hit the ground I knew that was it, that my ACL was gone, because I heard of other boys doing it before and describe what it was like.
“The worst thing was probably the shock of it; the realisation that I wasn’t going to play again for the rest of the season from so early on. It was a long time in the rehab but to be honest it’s flown. I was so keen to get back and I actually really enjoyed the rehab, and measuring your strength and speed. You can see yourself getting better and better, and that gives you massive confidence in the pre-season friendly against Leinster. ”
Last Sunday was only his 20th cap for Ulster, and with the taste of one cap for Ireland, Olding is now even more appreciative of what he can achieve. Being a professional rugby player, and representing both Ulster and Ireland, is something he’d envisaged doing since he was about six or seven years of age. “I’m not just saying this, but it’s been my ambition since I was in prep school. When the class was asked to write down what they wanted to be, and people were writing astronauts and stuff, and I wrote down ‘rugby player’.
“It’s something that has been in my blood. My dad (Gary) used to play rugby with Academy Rugby Club, and I’ve got two older brothers (Ross and Paul), and we’d go out and play in the garden until dinner time, and then straight back out to keep playing and knock lumps out of each other.”
Formative daysBelfast Royal Academy
“Rugby has always been a big part of my life, and the realisation sort of came when I got picked for Ulster schools, and then Ireland Under-18 schools as well, before being asked into the Ulster Academy in my first year out of school. That gave me a bigger drive to make it happen. I thought, ‘I’ve got an opportunity here and I’m not going to waste it’.”
He comes from a very tight family, he admits, and when Olding returned from that Irish tour to North America in June 2013, he gave his first Irish jersey to his mum (Lynn) and dad, and it is framed with his name and cap number, in the family home. The memories of the day remain strong, be it Les Kiss taking him aside to tell him he was playing, being handed the jersey, the peg with his number on it, the anthem and the game.
“This season I want to get back playing better than I was before, get a starting place with Ulster and then if that goes well, hopefully get more Ireland caps in the November series, and with the World Cup coming up, that’s a massive target of mine next September.”