INPHO/Dan Sheridan Three out-halves in the Ireland squad but JJ Hanrahan still has to get past Munster teammate Ian Keatley.
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The next four Pro12 games will make or break many a rugby career
‘I was flown from Sydney, offered a trial and facing Jerry Collins in my first two weeks at Ulster,” recalls fullback Adam D’Arcy.

THE HEAD COACH walks in the room. Wearing a sunburnt face, that shows signs of an off season well spent, but exuding a determined and purposeful, he addresses the group of 30 odd men sat in front of him.

“Everyone will play a part this year, its not about the best 15 players, but the strength of the squad as a whole.” It’s said at the start of every season, at every club, at every level, and it’s met with a wide range of responses.

For a young academy player, fresh out of school, tucking into his ham and cheese sandwich packed by mum, it hardly batters an eyelid. The chances of him getting a game in the RaboDirect Pro12, one of the top provincial European competitions, are small, especially when sitting next to him are internationally capped players, world cup winners, and British and Irish Lions.

For the slightly older and more experienced, having witnessed 2-3 seasons as a professional rugby player, he realises the truth in the statement, and knows that there will come a time during the long season, when he is called upon, and is given a chance to show his talent.

Then there are the 9-10 season stalwarts, sat at the back of the room trying to stay awake because their kids have the chicken pox and kept them up all night, who know that their body does not operate like it used to, and realise they will need a rest at some point, requiring others to take their place.

There is no doubting the importance of the squad mentality. The European rugby season is long, and as the game gets faster, more physical than ever before, the need for clubs to look past their first choice team, and into their squad, is becoming more frequent. At times, clubs even have to look outside their squad, as the coaching staff carefully managed their team like pieces on a chessboard.

Autumn internationals and World Cups are examples of periods within a season, where clubs lose part of their squad and have to turn to others, often younger, less experienced, but by no means less enthusiastic individuals. One of those periods is upon us now.

While most fans and critics will have their eye on this year’s highly anticipated Six Nations tournament, the Rabodirect Pro12 continues. There are extremely crucial games to be played, there results going a long way in determining the make up of the final four semi-final spots, and more importantly, the home advantage that comes with finishing in the top two. This is where a club’s squad is tested the most.

Ironically, the success of a club in the first half of the season, results in them being hit the hardest through this window. Teams at the top of the competition table suffer from international call ups, as players are rewarded for their individual, as well as their team performances. Munster, Leinster and Ulster make up the majority of the Irish squad, and for the latter, who sit nervously on the cusp of that important top quartet, the next six weeks are pivotal in shaping whether they will be on the pitch, or on the sofa, come the end of May.

We must not forget the injury toll that seems to accumulate through this part of the season also. The winter weather, causing the pitches to be heavy underfoot, creates more chances for limbs to be caught, dragged, and prone to damage. Ultimately, a player can get his opportunity through another’s misfortune, unfortunately.

Personally, my opportunity to join Ulster arose out of another player’s unfortunate decision to retire from the game. Club legend Bryn Cunningham had succumbed to an on-going knee injury at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season and one full-time, Irish qualified, position became available.

In a two-week period that I will never forget, I was flown from Sydney, offered a trial at the club, offered a contract, then lining up against Jerry Collins in the Magners League opener against the Ospreys. I saw the World Cup in 2011, and the subsequent Six Nations, times to improve my skills and gain experience at the highest level.

imageDan Biggar and Jerry Collins close in. INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

I often think where I would be if I hadn’t taken the opportunity, how things would have turned out if the timing wasn’t right, and if for the one trial game I had to impress, had a shocker [which all of us have done at some stage]. I have seen so many talented rugby players, capable of playing professionally, even internationally, fall through the cracks because the timing wasn’t right, and weren’t given the opportunity. So, when given the opportunity, take it with both hands.

For those players, who have been in and out of the side, clocking more time on the bench than on the pitch, this time of the year is a chance to remind the coaching staff of why they were given a contract in the first place. Even more importantly, it’s why they should be given another. It’s around these month’s that squads are finalised for the following season, so it may be the last chance for some to secure their place.

There is so much to play for.

– @adamdarcy played 54 times for Ulster from 2010 to 2013. He is currently with English Championship side Bristol.

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