AS a Belfast schoolboy, going to Ulster matches at Ravenhill on a Friday night is what you did, standing up on the hill on a bit of concrete, not the nice plush stadium that it is today. My Life in Rugby with Roger Wilson…
I had great memories of watching Ulster at that time and I was at Lansdowne Road the night we won the European Cup in 1999, even though I was full of flu. It was amazing seeing all the Ulster flags there.
Winning the Heineken Cup was always one of the things we talked about as players. Every season we’d say, this is our year. I think the best chance I ever had was in the 2013/2014 season at Ulster. We won all our group games, six out of six, and we were top seeds going into the quarter-finals. We beat Leicester home and away that year and, as a former Northampton player that was really special.
The rivalry between Tigers and Northampton had been ingrained in me and while I was never able to win at Welford Road as a Saint, to do so with Ulster was the next best thing. We drew Saracens at home in the quarter-final and fancied our chances but, within a few minutes of the game, Jared Payne was sent off by Jerome Garces. We dug in but lost by a couple of points.
If ever we were going to do it, if ever I was going to follow in the footsteps of the heroes of ‘99, that was the year.
During my first spell at Ulster we won the Celtic League. I don’t want to take away from that achievement, but it was probably not enough from the talent we had at our disposal and the resources we had as a club.
At the end of your career, and chatting to people that have retired, the one thing you can take away is winning things, so the one major disappointment is that I didn’t pick up more with my home province.
I moved to Northampton in 2008. It was a time when Ulster were going through a really bad stage in terms of our performances. Mark McCall was coming into his first role as head coach and compared to the fantastic things he has done at Saracens, it was a tough baptism for him. I wasn’t really enjoying my rugby and wanted a change of scenery.
A lot of people are home birds and never want to go away but I wasn’t like that.
I’d already spent eight years of my childhood in Derbyshire, due to a combination of my dad’s work and the fact Belfast wasn’t a great place to be in the ‘80s, so the area wasn’t that unfamiliar to me anyway.
Northampton had come back into the Premiership after relegation and that time at Saints was probably the most enjoyable of my career, or at least on a par with my first season as a pro at Ulster, which was great because of the novelty factor.
Northampton were an amazing team to be involved in – we had a great time on and off the field. As a young guy with no real responsibilities and no family at that stage, living in the centre of England with everything so accessible, the world was my oyster. You can back Northampton to be a hit when the Premiership restarts with the added benefit of Bet Calculator.
We had a good mixture of homegrown talent and experienced overseas players in the squad. Carlos Spencer and Bruce Reihana were there, Tom Smith was there in my first season, and Chris Ashton was in his second season there after switching from Rugby League. Then there was me and James Downey, the Irish boys. I lived with him for pretty much the whole time I was at Northampton and my liver took a hammering with his extra-curricular drinking activities. He was a bad influence on me that guy, but I wouldn’t change anything!
Another reason I went to Northampton was to try and get back on the international stage with Ireland but it just wasn’t to be, they didn’t really seem to go with players playing overseas. When I went back to Ulster, I gave it one last final crack of the whip, I was 30 at the time so it was now or never, and I got into the squad a few times but never quite made it into the matchday 23.
It will always be a source of frustration that I didn’t get more than one cap – against Japan in 2005. I felt like I deserved at least a couple more.
I can’t have any complaints though, I got to play professional rugby for 15 years – playing in over 350 first-class games – and I think the average is only seven years. It was a source of great pride that at the time of my retirement, I held the record for all-time appearances for Ulster. I think Darren Cave and Andrew Trimble went on to beat it a year later.
Rugby gives you a good life. If you break down our working week, we probably only work around half of what people that do a normal 9-5 job do. People look at that and say, ‘you have a good life, you train in the morning then you go off and drink your coffees and you do this and that’. But it is tough at times.
There are times in the winter, when there is snow and hail, and you’re walking from the car to the training pitch with niggles from the weekend and just thinking, ‘I’ll get on the phone to my agent right now and we’ll call it a day’. You just have to see beyond that and see the brighter light that makes it all worthwhile.
During my time as a professional, I clocked up over 3,000 tackles. When I started off, I wasn’t a particularly confident tackler, but I got better over time and now I’m putting what I learnt to good use. After retiring from rugby in 2017, I completed my Masters in Sports Performance Science before moving with my young family to Texas in the United States where I founded Tackle Smart Sports.
With more and more attention on the risk of injury, in particular concussion, I wanted to use my experience to help future generations enjoy playing the contact sport that they love, keep them safe and help offset the decline in participation by introducing better tackle techniques.
– as told to Jon Newcombe