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'I didn't want to be in the game just for the sake of saying I'm a pro rugby player'

Ricky Andrew played for Ulster 21 times but now coaches and plays in Valencia in Spain.

Updated Jun 15th 2020, 8:03 PM

RICKY ANDREW’S FINAL season with Ulster was a tough one. There were tears, there were doubts, and there was a bewilderment at how things had changed so quickly. 

The fullback, who is now almost three years into his time as head coach and player for CAU Valencia in Spain, played for his native province 21 times at senior level between 2011 and 2015 but his largely positive time there ended rather unhappily.

Speaking from sunny Spain, 30-year-old Andrew explains that he never had any plans to make it in professional rugby. It sort of just happened and he’s thankful it did, leading him to his current role in Valencia.

ricky-andrew-tackled-by-finn-russell Andrew looks to fend Glasgow's Finn Russell in 2014. Source: Russell Cheyne/INPHO

His younger brother, John, is still with Ulster now and the hooker always had a burning desire to make it as a prop but Ricky was different. He took up the sport at school in Ballymena Academy because it was mandatory.

Ulster centre Luke Marshall – another with big ambitions from early on – was in the year below Andrew and helped him to discover a love for training. Andrew began to impress on the pitch and his subsequent rise in Ballymena Academy took him all the way into Ulster’s academy.

Injuries ruined Andrew’s first two years out of school – first a groin issue, then a broken leg – but he loved his French and Spanish degree in Queen’s University. The 2010/11 college year meant an obligatory placement abroad for Andrew and he was fortunate that Ulster facilitated it.

Current Brive boss Jeremy Davidson, who had played and coached with Castres, was still with Ulster at the time and helped Andrew to get a spot in the Top 14 club’s academy set-up while he continued learning French in the southern town.

“Castres was me getting back to my feet,” says Andrew. “I was actually really shit, really terrible at the start. After the injuries, I couldn’t really run or sidestep. If I had been at home, Ulster might have just called it quits. But over in Castres, I really got back into it.

“I had a ball. It was a different style of rugby, all about their continuity stuff, so it was a shock in terms of lack of structure coming from Ulster. I loved it, a great experience.”

He returned to Ulster revived and credits academy coaches like Gary Longwell and Allen Clarke with pushing him on towards senior caps, the first of which arrived late in December 2011 off the bench against Leinster.

The 2012/13 season saw Andrew kicking on, starting six games at fullback in the Pro12 and finding his feet, while there were a further nine appearances the following season, helping Andrew to earn a senior contract for 2014/15.

“I never really thought I would play for Ulster and then got those first few games and it was fantastic,” he recalls. “You had guys like John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Rory Best around you, so they could afford to have one eejit in the back!

ricky-andrew Andrew played for Ulster 21 times. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I took a lot of confidence from being there. I played in the last few games at the old Ravenhill and the official opening of the new Kingspan. Learning from and training with all those players and coaches was fantastic.”

Coming into the 2014/15 campaign, Andrew had a strong pre-season and enjoyed the new-found confidence but things had changed with the removal of Mark Anscombe as head coach, a muddy period following as Les Kiss was appointed but Neil Doak acted as interim head coach.

Andrew fell out of favour and made just three appearances in that final season with Ulster, struggling with the lack of communication.

“You go from never thinking you’d play to being involved… not that I was a main starter but playing seven or eight games a season, training, feeling like you’re part of it and helping the team.

“I just couldn’t get my head around what it was I had to do to get back into the team. I was doing the typical thing of overtraining but I wasn’t getting anywhere.

“I remember after one training session, Jonny Bell [Ulster's defence coach at the time] came over to me asking how the session was and I couldn’t look at him – I was crying and I just didn’t know if I was doing anything right.”

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With Ulster releasing him, Andrew initially told his family he would stop playing pro rugby but his younger brother, John, convinced him to give it a shot somewhere else – leading to Ricky accepting an offer from Championship club Nottingham. Ultimately, it wasn’t for him.

“It was a great set-up and I’m still in contact with people there but it wasn’t what I wanted or expected out of rugby. It almost felt like everyone was there to try and get somewhere else, which is obviously fair enough.

WhatsApp Image 2020-06-12 at 17.24.16 (1) Andrew scores a try for CAU Valencia.

“I was happy enough after that to get out of playing professionally rugby. I didn’t want to be in the game just for the sake of saying I’m a professional rugby player.

“It wasn’t that important to me to have that title, so I was happy to move on and try other things.”

Andrew had been coaching from early on – helping out with younger teams even while he was in school – and linked up with Rainey Old Boys RFC as a player/coach, as well as returning to the Ballymena Academy set-up.

But with his languages slipping and busy working lives meaning himself and then-girlfriend India, who is now his wife, saw too little of each other, Andrew started to look abroad again in 2017. When an offer came from CAU Valencia, it was a no-brainer for the couple, with India taking a career break from her job as a physio with the NHS. 

Andrew head coaches and plays for CAU’s senior team in the second tier of Spanish rugby, División de Honor B, while working with various other sides in a club that totals more than 400 players.

División de Honor B, spilt into three pools of 12 teams, is notoriously tough to get promoted from, with the 22-game regular season followed by quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final played on a two-legged home-and-away basis.

CAU have been very competitive in Andrew’s three seasons so far, the third of them cut short by the Covid-19 lockdown, and he explains that billionaire business man Juan Roig, president of the massive Mercadona supermarket chain and a Valencia native, is supportive of the local clubs’ bids to push into the top flight of Spanish rugby.

The Spanish national team were very close to securing qualification to the 2019 World Cup at one stage but ended up embroiled in the 2018 Rugby Europe Champions farce that involved strong accusation of corruption but concluded with Los Leones being among the teams deducted points for fielding ineligible players.

Andrew is hopeful that Spain can push on post-Covid 19 and continue growing as a force in the European game.

WhatsApp Image 2020-06-12 at 17.24.16 Andrew at training in Valencia. Source: JCPena

“The only issue for me has been that they often bring in guys who are Spanish-qualified rather than Spanish. That kind of thing happens everywhere I know, including Ireland.

“But you could have a Spain team with lots of guys who are French but have a Spanish grandparent. Now they’re starting to use guys from the División de Honor more, instead of going for the Spanish-qualified French guys, which is good.

“Another issue is funding,” he continues. “I spent a week with them last season and the coach was saying he splits his time between the men’s senior national team, the U20s, the U18s – he’s involved in all of those set-ups because they don’t have the funding to get more people.

“He was saying that if they got through to the World Cup, their staff would have gone from four to 16 because World Rugby would have funded that. That would change everything. Spain are going in the right direction but finance-wise it’s a challenge.”

The very strict lockdown in Spain has begun to ease recently and Andrew is excited to eventually get back out on the pitch having spent recent months sending out videos to players in order to keep them engaged.

He has been studying a strength and conditioning degree online through Setanta College and when he looks to the future, he says a director of rugby role in a school back in Ireland would interest him. For now, the gradual easing of the lockdown has Andrew excited about getting back to work with CAU.

“I’ve got my options open with the languages but at the moment I’m just doing what I’m enjoying and seeing what comes out of it. It’s been great so far.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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