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'I didn't really appreciate until this year how much mental strength is a part of the game'

Youngster James Hume has nailed down his jersey and is trying to get ahead of the curve in dealing with the external pressure that comes with it.

James Hume of Ulster.
James Hume of Ulster.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

SITTING IN FRONT of the media, via Zoom, just after lockdown last September, Ulster centre James Hume declared that his five-year plan had him assuming the outside centre jersey at the province on a consistent basis by the end of the season.

At the time, it was a bold statement. While nobody doubted Hume’s burgeoning talent, the likes of Luke Marshall and Will Addison would surely have a say in whether he’d be handed starts throughout the season, while he’s still only 22 and developing as a player.

But eight months after rugby’s resumption, and off the back of an outstanding solo try against Leinster in the Guinness Pro14 final, Hume has nailed down the centre jersey and then some, starting 20 of Ulster’s games since then and playing the full 80 in all but three of them.

He has been helped to a degree by the fact that Marshall and Addison have been injured, which would have led to a few more weeks off than he has had, but that shouldn’t downplay the fact that Hume has earned his starts, holding off another highly thought-of prospect in Stewart Moore.

james-hume James Hume at Ravenhill. Source: Stephen Hamilton/INPHO

So, when put to him how his plan has played out since August, Hume naturally smiles when he reflects, admitting: “I feel it’s went pretty well so far and I feel I’ve put the best version of myself on the pitch.

“The key for me now… Obviously, Lukey’s been injured, so when he comes back I don’t want to be happy with alternating, I want to stay there. It’s up to me not to be comfortable where I am and keep working every day to get better.

That’s what Dan’s alluded to as well, that squeeze every drop, fight for every inch. That’s something I try every day to focus on, whether it’s stretching or extra passing or gym, whatever. I just try to do my best every day and hopefully it will work.

The five-year plan, which was written up with current Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper when the pair were both at RBAI and Hume was just about to join the academy, was ambitious in its scope and the centre did admit that there already has had to be a re-writing of it given how quickly he has achieved his third year target. One imagines the word ‘Ireland’ will likely feature soon.

His overall game has improved as the season has progressed, particularly as he has forged a more recognisable partnership with Stuart McCloskey at inside centre. Always defensively sound, the former Ireland U20 international has added an attacking edge, as highlighted by two searing breaks against Northampton Saints in the Challenge Cup quarter-final two weeks ago.

But even more pleasing for the 22-year-old than reaching his intended goal for the season is how he’s got to where he is, and to judge that, he brings the conversation back to that post-lockdown media session in September.

“I did a press conference just after lockdown where I said about my mental strength and how I thought I lacked in that department. That’s not something really that shows to fans or anything, that’s something interior in my intrinsic motivation,” he says.

“We listen to a lot of podcasts, self-improvement work, so when you read up a lot it motivates you to do more when you’re in training. That’s driving me to do an extra session. There’s loads of bits and bobs I’ve been working on.”

The drive to improve his mental strength has taken him away from rugby too. While walking the dog, Hume will throw on one of those motivational podcasts. He’s been reading more at home. In team meetings, he’s started taking more notice of Dan McFarland’s psychology-driven points.

I didn’t really appreciate until this year how much mental strength is a part of the game. People come forward and say how much pressure there is on them and that’s why they end up struggling. I’ve tried to start early and get some techniques in to dealing with external pressure and working on that.

“I like putting the onus on myself and seeing what works well for me, and that’s a battle to try and get better,” he adds.

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james-hume Hume following Ulster's win at Northampton. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

A good test will be tomorrow night at Kingspan Stadium when Ulster come up against Connacht in their opening Rainbow Cup game, with Andy Friend likely to counter the McCloskey-Hume pairing with an equally talented centre combination of Bundee Aki and Tom Daly.

Many will look at this tournament — severely diluted now that the South Africans will take part in their own version of the competition in the southern hemisphere — as a mere distraction for Ulster given their trip to Leicester Tigers in the Challenge Cup semi-finals looms next week.

It’s not an unreasonable perception, particularly since winning the Rainbow Cup likely means overcoming Leinster whereas the Challenge Cup does not. But Hume refuses to put all of his eggs in one basket.

“We regrouped after the disappointment of not getting a play-off game in the Pro14 and the Champions Cup obviously not going our way. We identified we had two competitions we could really put our foot down and pour everything into. This is a good group, a special group, and we want to win silverware, so our focus is massively on these two competitions to end the year out on a high,” he insists.

“The semi-final’s next week, that’s great. But we’ll focus on that when it’s next week. We have a job to do this week – it’s the start of a new competition, Connacht are tough opposition and it’s our first home game in a while. So we’ll concentrate on this week and then as soon as this game’s done, we’ll refocus again for next week.

“It’s a mindset switch and it’s something we’re quite good at, in my opinion.”

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