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Emotional Speight set for Ulster farewell against former coach Friend

‘It will be really hard to take the jersey off.’

SIGNED AS INJURY-COVER a couple of weeks before the start of the season, Henry Speight has made an instrumental impact at Ulster, but in the same way, the province has made an impact on him. 

The 19-time capped Australian international has become an integral part of the changing room at Kingspan Stadium, but will line out for Ulster for the final time in tonight’s Pro14 inter-pro against Connacht [KO 7.35pm, TG4/eir Sport]. 

Henry Speight Speight has made a big impact at Ulster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It will be an emotional farewell for the winger, who has settled into life in Belfast seamlessly since his August arrival, and he’ll leave for home on Monday with a heavy heart.

A four-month loan deal always meant the plan was to return to Australia on 31 December in preparation for the new Super Rugby season with the Brumbies — he just didn’t expect it to be as difficult to say goodbye.

“As soon as December came around it started coming into the back of my mind that I’m going,” he says. “It makes it a lot harder with the way results have been going too.

“It is going to be really hard to sort of pull away.”

Speight has featured 11 times for Ulster this term, scoring three tries including a pivotal score in the Heineken Champions Cup win at Scarlets earlier this month, and has become a real fan’s favourite at Kingspan Stadium.

His last home game in Belfast was last week’s derby victory over Munster, an occasion which proved to be a lot more emotional than he ever envisaged.

“It was a bit of a sort of emotional build-up, and I did not expect it,” he laughs. “But it was very, very special. The past two weeks have been really special. The atmosphere has been amazing and the support really got us through.”

Speight will have one final chance to pull on the Ulster jersey in Galway this evening, as Dan McFarland’s side look to continue their strong recent form having recorded back-to-back wins over Scarlets in Europe, before beating Munster before Christmas.

Not only will the game be significant for Speight because it will be his last in Ireland, but also by the fact he will come up against a couple of familiar faces in Connacht head coach Andy Friend and captain Jarrad Butler.

It was Friend — the then Brumbies head coach — who convinced Speight to sign for the Canberra-based franchise back in 2011 after the pair met in Auckland Airport.

“I have a few mates who are playing for Connacht and I know the coach for Connacht, there is a bit of familiarity with the faces there,” the 30-year-old says.

“Their record is probably just as good as ours in the past month and we cannot switch off over Christmas week. If we do, we can get a hard time there. It is a big test and it is going to be a big ask for this whole squad, not just the 23.”

Henry Speight celebrates winning Speight has scored three tries for Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Friend, meanwhile, is wary of the threat Speight will pose tonight.

“We sat and had a coke and I asked if he’d like to play for the Brumbies,” the Connacht coach said of their first meeting.

“We had a chat for an hour and a half, we shook hands and he said I’d love to play for the Brumbies. I jumped on a plane and went home and six weeks later he signed for us.

“He is one hell of an athlete. He is very quick and very powerful and sees the game really well.

“He has been a great signing for them [Ulster]. I’m just watching him at the moment you can see he’s enjoying his time up there.”

Speight would love to finish his short stint with Ulster by producing another big performance at the Sportsground in the second of three consecutive Pro14 derbies over the Christmas and New Year period.

“Off the field it’s an amazing place to be and the people are very hospitable and kind and accepting,” he adds.

“We can’t thank everyone enough whether you meet them on the streets, or in the stands or in the club, the offices and stuff everyone has been absolutely amazing.

It’s the same with other players I talk to in other teams. The will to fight for every little inch and for as long as it takes whether it’s 80 or 85 minutes like how we did in Wales it’s something that I’ve really learnt.

“Whether you’re winning by two or by 30, you’ve still got to play for the full time.”

Speight will be on a flight back to Australia with his partner on New Year’s Eve, and will be straight back into pre-season with the Brumbies next week.

How will he feel when the final whistle goes in Galway on Friday night?

“I had a bit of a preview of the feeling against Munster after the game and just doing that lap and it just sinks in a bit that it was the last home game,” he explains. 

Obviously just everyone in the changing room, I think that was the most special bit second to that is seeing our supporters happy and everyone in the stands and making the province proud.

“I think just the vibe in the changing rooms and the camaraderie in the squad.

“There are no limitations of people not talking to other people, there are no groups within the team it is just a big brotherhood and you see Bestie [Rory Best] talking with someone who is 19-years-old and cracking a joke.

“Things like that make everyone come in and have a massive part of it and will make it really hard to take the jersey off.”

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne look back on a memorable year for Irish rugby.


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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