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Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Ian Cook/INPHO Olding makes a linebreak earlier this season for Ulster.
# Loves the Game
Instinctive Olding looks to make the difference for Ulster against Toulon
The 21-year-old has played a variety of positions throughout his young career.

ULSTER HAVE MADE minimal changes to their starting team for this afternoon’s clash with Toulon [KO 13.00], but the incoming Stuart Olding will look to have maximal effect on the outcome.

The bulk and power of Stuart McCloskey makes way for the instinctive footballing skills of once-capped Ireland international Olding in the 12 shirt. Both players have exciting futures, and the fact that they offer two very different styles is encouraging.

21-year-old Olding has an intriguing positional history, having played at openside flanker in his Junior Cup years at Belfast Royal Academy, before shifting to scrum-half, to centre, to fullback and then to out-half in his final year at school in a team that also included Iain Henderson.

His representative rugby for Ulster and Ireland U20s came in the 10 shirt, while he lined out in the same position in the AIL with Belfast Harlequins after leaving school. The richness and variety of that journey now feeds into making him an excellent inside centre.

Playing 10, 15 and 13 gives you a perspective on what a 12 needs to hear, gives you different perspectives across the pitch and gives you the opportunity to see what the other positions need and how they run off you,” says Olding.

“If you’re at 10, you see less. Then at 12, you see less than at 13, and at 15 you see more. You can see those different movements, like wingers going into the line or staying blind. It gives you a lot more confidence when you’re playing 12.”

One of the key features of Olding’s game is his ability to make scything linebreaks in situations where it’s not immediately apparent that something is on.

Stuart Olding 21/10/2014 Presseye / Jonathan Porter/INPHO Olding is already an Ireland international, having played on the 2013 North America tour. Presseye / Jonathan Porter/INPHO / Jonathan Porter/INPHO

The Belfast man appears to be expert at picking out the tiniest of chinks in the opposition defence, then darting past, ducking under or slipping around the would-be tacklers as he hits the gainline.

“I think the majority of it for me is just instinct and seeing a gap at the last minute and going for it,” says Olding as a means of explaining his line-breaking ability.

“It helps if you look up and you notice that they’ve got a lot of forwards on the edge of the line, you know you can try to get around them. A bit of separation in the line, maybe two props together, and you might go in between them.

But a lot of it’s off the cuff, sometimes I don’t realise I’m going to do it and then it happens.”

While Olding is surely being humble about his ability, there is certain truth in answer, and it touches upon one of the reasons the 21-year-old is so enjoyable to watch. Some players get bogged down in the detail, but Olding simply relishes playing the game.

“I prefer to just enjoy the rugby. I enjoy the running game, enjoy tackling, enjoy trying to steal the ball in a jackal. I just enjoy playing the game and I think that’s the best way. If I’m enjoying it, I’m more relaxed and that makes me play better.”

Now weighing in around the 92kg mark, having added four kilos to his frame over the last year, Olding is content that he is more than capable of dealing with the physical demands of the top level of the game.

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Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson Billy Stickland / INPHO Olding at Carton House for an Ireland camp earlier this year. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

There are giants masquerading as centres in the likes of McCloskey and many others in the modern game, but Olding is a different sort of midfielder.

“I think I’m heavier than I actually look on the pitch!” says Olding. “With the style that I play, I don’t want to be weighing 100 kilos and running into people. I want to be agile and light on my feet, trying to look for gaps, exploit them and accelerate through.”

Olding’s inclusion in the latest Ireland squad is just reward for his eye-catching displays since returning from last season’s long-term knee injury. Another strong outing against Toulon this afternoon would push him even higher in Joe Schmidt’s estimation.

Olding looked up to Ulster’s David Humphreys and Paddy Wallace in his younger years – similarly clever, distributing 10/12s. Internationally, New Zealand legend Christian Cullen was a favourite.

Cullen played a really expansive game. He just liked to run things and had an eye for the gap, then took it.”

If Olding continues to progress as he has up until this point, there is no reason he cannot become a smart hybrid of those three role models.

No pressure.

Ulster: Louis Ludik; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Andrew Warwick, Rory Best (capt.) Wiehahn Herbst; Lewis Stevenson, Franco van der Merwe; Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Chris Ross, Nick Williams, Michael Heaney, Ian Humphreys, Darren Cave.

Toulon: Leigh Halfpenny; Delon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud, Maxime Mermoz, Bryan Habana; Matt Giteau, Michael Claassens; Alexandre Menini, Guilhem Guirado, Carl Hayman (capt.); Jocelino Suta, Romain Taofifenua; Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage, Chris Masoe.

Replacements: Craig Burden, Fabien Barcella, Levan Chilachava, Bakkies Botha, James O’Connor, Ali Williams, Sebastien Tillous-Borde, Juan Smith.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

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