Thursday 26 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Dan Sheridan/INPHO Nagle is set to return to the team this week.
# Northern Exposure
On-loan Nagle enjoying a new lease of life at Ulster
The second row has enjoyed consistent game time since moving north on loan in November.

SAY WHAT YOU want about half-and-half scarves, but if there was ever a time when they were wholly appropriate, it was for Ian Nagle on Saturday.

Journeying down to the Aviva Stadium not involved in the matchday squad, you would have forgiven the Cork man for being drawn between two loyalties, both of which would be considered rather important.

He may be turning out in the white jersey of Ulster these days rather than in blue, but technically he’s still a Leinster player due to the nature of his loan deal, making the resting place of his allegiance at the Aviva last Saturday understandably a rather hot topic.

After all, who do you root for — your current club or your parent club?

“It was a strange week really,” laughs the 30-year-old. “I’m lucky I have friends in both dressing rooms at this stage.

“Now that I’m in Ulster I wanted Ulster to win, for selfish reasons as I want to win a trophy myself, so I was incredibly disappointed with the result but I’m very proud with how the boys performed at the same time.”

It was the big one for everyone in the Ulster squad, a first quarter-final since 2014 — and a first European knockout game for most of the team — that they had been waiting for since they were assured of their place back in January.

The selection battle was fierce in several positions, such as who would get the nod in the back row with Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee, who would be the last centre standing given Ulster’s injury woes and who would start at fullback with Louis Ludik sidelined.

Everyone wanted to be involved, from the wily veterans like Rory Best and Darren Cave to the young upstarts from the academy who have propelled Ulster to the next level this campaign – -the likes of Eric O’Sullivan, Robert Baloucoune and Michael Lowry.

In the game itself, they put in one of their best performances of the season, leaving everything out on the pitch in a display that saw them showcase a mixture of intensity and physicality that an Ulster team hasn’t exhibited since perhaps their last European quarter-final win in 2012.

For Nagle, however, to his disappointment, he wasn’t in the mix for selection for the game — although he did understand why.

“I’d have loved to have been able to play. It’s standard for any player in Ireland, if they go on loan they can’t play,” he explains.

“It was difficult, and it’s a shame because there’s every chance we could play Leinster again in a play-off game, so that’s a bit frustrating. It’s just something to accept, and I have a very good relationship with Leinster so I’ll always be respectful towards them.

“I can’t play in three weeks either (when Ulster and Leinster meet in the Guinness Pro14), which is annoying, but I understand it. It was the same for Tom Daly when he moved to Connacht so I knew that before I came.”

On the day, however, Nagle saw enough to know that in his mind, he’s made the right decision.

Ian Nagle during a maul Dan Sheridan / INPHO Nagle has been able to string a run of games together. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Struggling for game time at the RDS, the opportunity arose to become the latest Leinster squad member to make the journey north up the M1 to Kingspan Stadium in November when the province were struggling with injuries, and once he made the decision to take the leap, he hasn’t looked back.

Since arriving in Belfast, the lock has made nine appearances out of a possible 14 — and of those five he’s missed, he was injured for most of them — and has integrated into the squad seamlessly.

It’s been a new lease of life for the Cork native, who has put in some strong performances in the white of Ulster and has brought another experienced head to a young squad that can help in their transformation from a team on the up to a team at the top.

And that performance on Saturday had Nagle leaving Dublin with a smile on his face. Sure, the result wasn’t exactly what they wanted, but the performance told him everything he needed to know, and now he hopes the squad can use it to build on and move forward.

“I think actually the sign of how disappointed the young players were shows the belief that’s there now,” he insists. “Outside of the circle there wasn’t much belief that Ulster could do the job, but inside the circle we really went down there and expected to win. That’ll really stand to the players and especially the young players.

“I know when I was at Leinster and we lost that semi-final to Clermont, Stuart Lancaster showed us all these teams that used that big loss to continue them for the next few seasons and become successful, so hopefully that’s what happens with Ulster now – this will be a trigger point for years to come and we can go on to win trophies.”

At the end of the day, however, once again it was another Ulster defeat to their interprovincial rivals, no matter how close the scoreline was at the full-time whistle, and it stretches their streak against Leinster to just the one win in their last 21 matches against them in Dublin.

Arguably they won’t get a better chance either, given that they caught Leinster flat out of the box and on an off-day, while Jacob Stockdale passed up that gilt-edged try-scoring chance early in the second half as well.

It’s nothing new to say that Ulster have a poor record in Dublin, in fact it’s pretty much par for the course these days, but this one may be the most hurtful of all given just how close they came and still couldn’t get over the line when push came to shove.

But Nagle, who has now been on both sides of the coin – even if he didn’t actually play on Saturday – is confident that the quarter-final defeat may prove to be a blessing in disguise for Dan McFarland’s side.

“I think the game on Saturday will go a long way towards (ending the poor run). Playing Leinster in a sold out Aviva in knockout rugby, that’s as tough as it gets,” says the second row.

“I think for large parts of that game Ulster were the better team, so if you don’t believe at the end of that – we believed going into it – but if you don’t believe it now then there’s not much more you can really do.

“Leinster are the team to beat at the minute, and they’re the barometer of where you want to be, but I think Ulster are really close to being at that level and hopefully before the end of the year we can actually go that one step better.”

As with all players who up sticks and move to another province, the move to Ulster wasn’t an easy one to make for Nagle. But once he made the decision, he’s put everything into it and has embraced moving to a new team – which, in turn, has seen him pleasantly surprised by his experience in Belfast.

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“I’ve loved it. I didn’t realise how young a squad it was before I came up here – the word transition period is thrown around a lot but it’s a really exciting time to be part of Ulster Rugby,” he explains.

Ulster’s Ian Nagle Inpho / Billy Stickland Nagle is on loan until the end of the season. Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

“Did they get the right coaches for the job? In my opinion, definitely, and they’re really getting the best out of the players and a lot of the young players are feeding off his every word. The result of that was seen on Saturday, how the young players expressed themselves and the confidence that was there.

“It’s a really exciting time for Ulster Rugby.”

Does that mean he might be back next season to be a part of the next phase of Ulster’s progression?

“Going through all that at the moment,” he says with a slight grin. “Yeah, maybe.”

For now, next season has to be parked, because as intense as that game at the Aviva Stadium was, it’s straight back into Pro14 action for Ulster with a trip to Scotstoun to take on the Glasgow Warriors on Friday night [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport/Premier Sports].

Saturday’s defeat was Ulster’s first since the first game of the year — when, ironically, they also lost to Leinster in Dublin — as their seven-game unbeaten streak came to an end.

However, that run has seen them take possession of second place in Conference B of the Pro14 and they currently hold a seven-point buffer over Edinburgh in fourth in the race for the end-of-season play-offs.

It means that Ulster hold their destiny in their own hands and, with a win over fellow European quarter-finalists Glasgow on Friday, they would move within touching distance of securing their place in the top three, and with it a play-off spot and a return to the Champions Cup for next season.

“It’s knockout rugby now for the rest of the season to some extent. Glasgow, which is a huge game, then Edinburgh and then Leinster again, and then hopefully it’s three knockout games,” says Nagle, who is in line to return to the team for the trip to Scotstoun.

“I think everyone is really focused and it’s going to be a tough few days to put the last result at the back of our minds, but at the same time we can take a huge amount of confidence in how we played. It’s probably one of the toughest games in European rugby and, but for the bounce of a ball, we could have come out the right side of it.

“We’re building momentum at the right time of the season and we’re on a real upward trajectory – it’s our first loss in eight games – and I think we can carry that momentum into the last two months.”

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