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Dublin: 11 °C Saturday 4 April, 2020

Ex-Highlander Faddes feeling right at home with Ulster's style of play

The South Islander was not put off by his first visit to Belfast with the Barbarians three years ago.

robert-du-preez-is-tackled-by-dom-waqaniburotu Robert du Preez is tackled by Dom Waqaniburotu of Fiji as Tommy Bowe runs in support during the November 2016 encounter. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

STANDING IN THE driving Belfast rain on a cold November night in 2016, chances are the first thoughts on Matt Faddes’ mind weren’t that he wanted to play his rugby there all year round.

Back then it was just a passing visit as part of the Barbarians side to take on Fiji in a one-off friendly at Kingspan Stadium, a game played in atrocious conditions.

Though Faddes crossed the whitewash in a 40-7 win for the Baa-Baas, it wasn’t exactly an inviting first taste of Belfast.

matt-faddes-scores-a-try Faddes scoring for the Barbarians at Kingspan Stadium. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

And yet, three years later he’s standing in the gym at the same stadium, modelling Ulster’s away kit for the upcoming season and preparing for his first taste of northern hemisphere rugby having taken the plunge and left his hometown Super Rugby franchise the Highlanders for Northern Ireland.

“It’s time for a fresh start, a new challenge,” says the 27-year-old. “I’d been in Super Rugby for four years and I wanted to keep developing as a player, to keep learning as a player on the field. I was just keen to learn.”

Hailing from Balclutha in the south of New Zealand, around halfway between Dunedin and Invercargill, Faddes has chosen to continue his learning a long way from home – just over 11,000 miles to be exact. But he says it all goes back to that wet, windy night in 2016.

“(My wife, Georgie, and I) had the opportunity to come here for a few days in 2016 and we just enjoyed the feel of it. It’s a similar feel to home, a community-based side. It was a good fit,” says Faddes.

“We to’d and fro’d a bit and then we came to an agreement around Christmas time and we decided to make the move. It’s pretty exciting.”

The decision to move was one which was perhaps a little easier than he would have hoped. After bursting onto the Super Rugby scene in 2016 with the Highlanders by finishing second in the try scoring charts with 10 scores in 16 games – behind only Israel Folau – his subsequent seasons never hit the same scoring heights.

matt-faddes Faddes in action against the Chiefs this season. Source: Photosport/Jeremy Ward/INPHO

That’s not to say he wasn’t still a strong performer for the Dunedin-based franchise. An agile yet powerful runner with ball in hand, Faddes is a handful for any defender, and his versatility of being able to play anywhere in the back line outside of the half-back slots is obviously a very attractive trait for any head coach.

But after starting so well with the Highlanders, it was always going to be tough to maintain that strike rate and his production in terms of points declined. Having scored 10 tries in his first Super Rugby campaign, he would only score nine in his following three and would see himself on the bench more than in the run-on team, leading him to look for opportunities elsewhere.

That, in turn, came from Ulster. With that familiarity having played – and been drenched – in that Barbarians game, the offer intrigued Faddes and led him to explore the deal.

After a chat with head coach Dan McFarland, he was sold.

“That’s what attracted me to Ulster, it’s a side that likes to use the ball,” he says of McFarland’s style.

matt-faddes-with-the-ranfurly-shield Faddes with the Ranfurly Shield which Otago claimed in May. Source: Photosport/Jeremy Ward/INPHO

“Coming from the southern hemisphere, or at least playing with a roof on your home stadium in Dunedin, it’s a brand we’re used to. It’s nice to come in and do similar stuff.”

Another pull factor was another Kiwi at Ulster: defence coach Jared Payne. The pair never crossed paths while in New Zealand, but the similarities between the two are rather uncanny given both are versatile backs who specialise in playing centre but can also cover full-back (and, in Faddes’ case, wing).

“We’re friends of friends. He’s a mate of Dan Pryor, who I played a lot with for the Highlanders,” explains Faddes.

“We’d heard of each other. I grew up watching Jared play even though it wasn’t that long ago. He’s been huge for me, with us playing similar sort of positions and similar sort of roles. It’s been huge to pick his brain and get the insight into how things work over here and the set-up. It’s been crucial really.”

Indeed, now that he’s here, there’s a lot expected of Faddes during the early part of the season as one of the more experienced heads in the squad with the Ireland players away on World Cup duty. He and one of Ulster’s other big summer arrivals, Sam Carter, will provide additional depth in the young squad while they’re short-handed.

PR_2 John Andrew, Matt Faddes and Sam Carter launching Ulster's new home kit. Source: Darren Kidd

For Faddes, he knows he’s in for a battle for game time whether he’s deployed at centre or in the back three, but the 27-year-old is eager to get stuck in and make a good first impression in front of the home fans, starting with their first pre-season game against the Glasgow Warriors next Saturday.

That and the fact that he’s simply ready to go. Having been involved with the Highlanders throughout last season, the former NZ Sevens star says he’s physically and mentally ready to get stuck into a new campaign with his new team, so bring it on.

“It’s cool, it’s an awesome environment. It’s a great bunch of guys and the support staff are awesome,” grins Faddes.

“It’s obviously a pretty long pre-season. We’ve only done a few weeks here ourselves but you get the sense that everyone is keen to get out on the field. It’s a bit of a different situation for us, coming straight from a season but I know Sam and I are pretty keen to get out there and play a bit, especially when it’s a hard deck.”

At least the weather’s been a little better than it was the last time he was in Belfast, not that he minds much.

“The last few days have been nice weather, the weeks leading into that pretty poor!” he laughs.

“It’s been cool, it’s been really inviting and the transition has been really easy for us.”

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