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Ulster's Matty Rea ready to test himself against the man 'we all aspire to be'

After a tough 2018-19 campaign, Rea has become an integral part of Ulster’s back-row picture this season.
Jan 1st 2020, 12:01 PM 12,419 25

THE SUB-PLOTS surrounding Friday’s game between Ulster and Munster will add an extra dimension to what is already an exciting interprovincial meeting at Kingspan Stadium.

The scrum-half battle between Conor Murray and John Cooney jumps off the page immediately as the Ulsterman continues to push his case for a Six Nations start, while Niall Scannell and Rob Herring facing off at hooker, and John Ryan and Marty Moore on opposing tightheads, is worth watching too.

matthew-rea-celebrates-after-the-game Matty Rea has already made 12 appearances for Ulster this season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

For Matty Rea, however, he’s only focused on one head-to-head clash and that’s his own with Peter O’Mahony, the player whom he sees as the ideal man to emulate as a blindside flanker.

While the Munster skipper has had his detractors, he has still been one of the ever-presents in the Ireland squad over the last few years, and Rea is eager to base his game around how the Corkman has gone about making himself one of world rugby’s feared flankers.

“He’s set the standard with that line-out work and just the way he goes about his work, hasn’t he?” praises the Ballymena man of the Munster skipper.

“He’s someone we all aspire to be, a player like that who has been through it, has showed up in big games and put in big performances, and that is how he has got his reputation.”

It’s a reputation that Rea would love to match, and he has been doing his best this season to do so. Indeed, the similarities between the two in terms of the style of game they play are striking, with a high work-rate and providing an extra line-out option among their strengths.

The difference, of course, is the level that they play at, Rea having never progressed beyond his province while O’Mahony has been a Lions captain and an Ireland regular for several years. But that doesn’t stop the Ulsterman setting lofty ambitions for himself.

And for Rea, he’s undoubtedly having his best season for Ulster, having played in 12 of their 13 games so far, starting nine of them, and has bringing his game on over the last few months after a tough 2018-19 season that saw him limited to just nine appearances.

However, this season he has become an integral part of the back-row picture, and he’s putting that down to getting the hard work done during the off-season. While admitting himself he’s still a way off O’Mahony’s standards, the gap is definitely not what it once was. 

peter-omahony-celebrates Munster captain Peter O'Mahony. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think going into the season I knew what I needed to work on and what I needed to bring, and Dan [McFarland, head coach] was pretty clear in what he wanted from me,” reveals Rea, who is third in minutes played for Ulster this season, behind only Luke Marshall and Sean Reidy.

“It definitely makes it easier for me to focus on those things and be able to bring that and focus on those every game.

“For me, last year was probably a non-runner with different things. I just want to get out there and play as much as possible. Every opportunity I get I’m extremely grateful for it, and long may it continue.

“I think Dan has been very good with the feedback and things I need to work on, and that is obviously bringing out the best in me, and using what I’m good at, utilising my strengths.”

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That has been the case for Ulster’s back row as a whole, which has been one of the strengths of the northern province’s success this season, aided by injury-free stretches for their key quartet of Rea, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee and Jordi Murphy.

With Coetzee commanding the lion’s share of carrying, that allows the remaining trio to do the rest of the grunt work at the breakdown and on the other side of the game in terms of the defensive work-rate. The good mix of different styles has given the team a variety of options at their disposal. 

“I think there is a bit more synergy in the back row than there has been in a few years, and they have been pretty consistent with selection. You’re forming a new relationship with guys and that is paying dividends now,” agrees Rea, who adds that in Coetzee’s absence this weekend the rest of the loose quartet will have to step up with ball in hand.

“We talk about it ourselves, there are probably not a lot of back rows that have got ahead of us this year as a unit. On paper, individually they look like they should, but as a unit we’ve been able to get the better of most of them. We want to play in those big games and test ourselves against some of the best in the world.”

cj-stander-makes-a-break Munster got the better of Ulster at Thomond Park in November. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Munster will be another big test, and the southern province already have the bragging rights this season having won the previous meeting between the two sides at Thomond Park in November, so revenge is definitely on the agenda for Rea and co.

But, then again, Ulster are improving when it comes to those big games. They’re four from four in Europe, with Clermont, Bath and Harlequins (twice) dispatched already this season. Connacht were dealt with efficiently last weekend, and a 12-point loss at the RDS to a rampant Leinster is nothing to be ashamed of.

Another big win this weekend would have Ulster sitting very pretty early in the new year, given they are already comfortably in second place in Conference A of the Guinness Pro14. It would also be a significant boost heading back into their final two European pool games.

Rea acknowledges the upturn in form and mentality at Kingspan Stadium, and reveals it has all started from the small things, right down to something as simple as getting their warm-ups right.

“It definitely sets the tone. Teams travelling, if you can get on top of them in the first five minutes, we’ve seen that going to Leinster and that’s how it works. You try not to let it but that’s the nature of the game,” says Rea. “It’s being able to put in a performance for 80 minutes on top of that, not just going well for half the game.

“We are expecting that [Munster] haven’t changed much over the last 20 years, the way they play. Up front it will be confrontational but I think we are putting a pack together now that we can go toe-to-toe with teams like Munster and hopefully come out of top.”

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