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'Even the start of this season, I'd be going into games thinking 'what if I'm not good enough?'

In-form Ulster centre James Hume says he is finally beginning to play with more self-belief.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

ASK MOST VIEWERS for James Hume’s best moment in Ulster’s win over Leinster at the RDS Arena and they will probably say the intercept try that ultimately sealed the four points late on. But ask the centre himself and he won’t give you the same answer.

Coming out of the Autumn Nations having not played a single minute, the 23-year-old felt he had a point to prove, no matter what he said at the time. His conversation with Andy Farrell upon leaving Carton House was about producing his big performances on a more consistent basis like the men ahead of him.

“He said it was in my hands with this block of games what I was going to do with them. I could go one way or the other,” explains Hume.

“But it was a positive chat. There were a lot of good things said but that was the one thing where I was just falling behind, and now it’s about trying to execute that as well as possible.”

Within a week he’d laid down a marker and then some, outplaying Robbie Henshaw – the man who centre partner Stuart McCloskey would describe as “the best centre in the world” two weeks later – in that win over Leinster, and since then it has only been up for the former RBAI stand-out.

Hume was sensational in masterminding the win at Clermont in their Champions Cup opener and similarly against Northampton Saints a week later. After Ulster’s Covid break over Christmas, he returned with another fantastic display as part of a phenomenal backs performance at Franklin’s Gardens last week.

While he was in good form prior to the Autumn Nations, the centre has been irrepressible since, and the calls for him to get some kind of involvement during the Six Nations are growing louder and louder each week, with Ireland legends Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara among those adding their voices to the noise.

james-hume Hume has built a strong partnership with Stuart McCloskey. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I’ve been saying here for some time that James Hume has comfortably shown his ability to step up in Europe, so he’s ready for the next tier,” O’Gara wrote in his Irish Examiner column this week.

While his rise hasn’t exactly been meteoric, Hume has made a significant leap over the last eight weeks and has even transcended the need to have McCloskey alongside him to be comfortable in the centre. Now, he is his own man, and he turns back to that Leinster game to prove it.

“Up until, say, even the start of this season, I’d be bricking it going into games, thinking ‘what if I don’t perform well here? What if the other players make me look stupid? What if I’m not good enough?’” he explains.

I think those Leinster and Clermont weeks were the ones when I was like ‘I can do this’ and it kind of followed on into Northampton, Munster, Northampton again where I can look at those and say ‘I am good enough at that level to put in a performance’. It’s to know what I’m good at and not going outside of my house, my basic skills and what I do well.

“I did take great confidence from that Leinster game because I have massive respect for Robbie Henshaw. He’s probably the best centre in the world. Coming up against him and holding my own is a huge marker for me. Taking bits from what he does really well, he’s so good off the ball, scanning defensively and stuff.

“It was thinking ‘I know how good he is but I also know the threat I can pose’ and I carried that into the Clermont game and so on. Going away to Clermont in Europe, putting in a good performance against European giants, it’s a massive confidence boost.

“Even if times do get tough in the future I can look back on that and say I’m more than capable of being able to put out a performance there and just get myself back to my pillars, my basics.”

Accordingly, breaking into the Ireland team rather than just the extended squad is the next milestone to check off the list. Easier said than done, of course, with the ‘world class’ Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose all ahead of him in the pecking order as it stands, but the gap is closing incrementally with each lauded performance.

In that regard, Hume is not intent on sacrificing himself to try and fit into a mould to get caps. Having ballooned in weight during his school days due to a self-confessed “comical” diet, he now knows that being the best version of himself is the way to international recognition.

“When we came out of school I was way heavier, probably close to 9kg heavier than I am now,” he reveals, adding that a stress fracture picked up while with the Irish U19s that sidelined him for seven months was likely down to him weighing 104kg.

“When I left and started to lose a bit of weight and got into better shape, I found that footwork was a good strength for me. It’s something that I’ve tried to bring into my game. I obviously know that from playing against some great players that when they have good footwork how hard it is to defend.

I think that’s a massive thing in my game that I’ve tried to focus on: to keep progressing my strengths and finding ways to manipulate defenders using my footwork. I think in the past I was trying to identify weak points in my game. I have to remember that my strengths are strengths.”

Those strengths have led Ulster into the last-16 of the Heineken Champions Cup with a game to spare, and today they welcome Clermont to Kingspan Stadium [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport] knowing a win will secure them home advantage through at least the quarter-finals and potentially further.

“Like Kobe Bryant said, ‘The job’s not over’,” adds Hume with steely determination.

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“We want to be in the best position possible at the end of these pool stages so we can get ourselves a home quarter. We’re treating this the exact same as every game we’ve had in the European Cup so far. It’s full steam ahead, the boys are going to be ready.”

ULSTER: Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Angus Curtis, Ethan McIlroy;  Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor (captain), Kieran Treadwell; Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Brad Roberts, Jack McGrath, Tom O’Toole, Sam Carter, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Ben Moxham, Craig Gilroy.

CLERMONT: Cheikh Tiberghien; Marvin O’Connor, Jean-Pascal Barraque, Tani Vili, Alivereti Raka; JJ Hanrahan, Morgan Parra; Etienne Falgoux, Yohan Beheregaray, Rabah Slimani; Paul Jedrasiak, Tomas Lavanini; Judicael Cancoriet (captain), Lucas Dessaigne, Jacobus van Tonder.

Replacements: Etienne Fourcade, Daniel Bibi Biziwu, Cristian Ojovan, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Fritz Lee, Kevin Viallard, Camille Lopez, Damian Penaud.

Referee: Luke Pearce (England)


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss Andy Farrell’s exciting-looking Six Nations squad; Jason Jenkins’ unexpected interprovincial move; and Bernard’s former player at Grenoble, Jordan Michallet, who passed away tragically this week aged 29

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