Kiwi-k change for Andy Ward.
It's a monumental journey, but Andy Ward made it this week. And when he steps onto the College Park rugby pitch just before 2.30pm this afternoon to face Dublin University, he will start the next stage in what has been a fairytale few weeks for the Kiwi-born Ballynahinch flanker.
Less than a month ago, he was on the end of a 16-11 defeat to runaway Division 3 leaders Portadown. But a week later he had been called into the Irish squad and he celebrated with a brilliant try-scoring performance in the win against Collegians which got the 'Hinch back on the promotion trail.
Even then, he was just pleased to be in the squad. Pleased to be recognised by his former Waikato team-mate Warren Gatland, the newly-installed Irish coach. It'd be a nice trip. See a bit of Paris. Have a nice meal.
But then suddenly it was hello Marc Lievremont and Olivier Magne. Welcome to the big time, Mr Ward!
"It's been an incredible few weeks," he says, still reeling from the shock of it all.
"I mean to go from Collegians to Stade de France, back to College Park and then on to Lansdowne Road, it's just amazing.
"I'm going to have to try and get my head around the fact that despite the different atmosphere, I have another important match today.
"It would mean so much for me and the club if we got promotion. That's our big aim and if we win our last two games we have a great chance of doing that.
"I know what's at stake for the club and there's no way I will let my standards drop."
That much is certainly true as anyone who witnessed his barnstorming display in Paris can testify.
It looked like he was on a loser. Ireland would get slaughtered and he would join the likes of Paul Hogan, Ken O'Connell and Don Whittle as one- cap wonder flankers who flopped in Paris. But the magnificent Irish ripped the script to shreds and Gatland's unchanged side for Wales next week gives Ward a great chance to build on a solid first outing.
"I knew that there was a problem in the last few years in Irish rugby where a lot of guys just got one or two caps and there was a large turnover of players," says the 27-year-old from Whangerei.
"But I was happy enough with the way I played although it obviously took me a bit of time to settle into the match.
"I was so overwhelmed by the walk down the tunnel and lining up for the anthems, it was such a memorable experience.
"Everyone was so up for it, the attitude amongst the players was totally focused on winning the game. That's why we were so disappointed at the end not to have won. We knew we could have won that game.
"It's great for me to have another chance next week. It gives me an opportunity to perfect a couple of things that went wrong last week. I know that I have a lot more to offer."
Ward may be from New Zealand but it's hard to tell. His conversation is peppered with "ach" and "wee" - definitely Co Down and not Down Under!
He's been four years here now since getting a call on behalf of Ballynahinch from the ex-Bangor coach and fellow Kiwi, Duncan Dysart. And the former dairy farmer/panel beater hasn't looked back since.
Last August he made his debut for Ulster against Richmond. He's married to a local girl, Wendy and he now works for the IRFU as a development officer. "I love it up here," he gushes. "It's a great club and the people are so friendly. There's no way that I could possibly get a swelled head. My feet are firmly on the ground.
"I'd love to think that I could develop my international career in tandem with Ballynahinch. That would be ideal.
"But at the same time, I don't want to hold myself back either. I'll just have to see how it goes in the next few months. I think the way Ulster's season is mapped out next year might be a help."
But first he has to deal with College Park. Next week he's a few miles up the road to face the Welsh. But Ward treats every game he plays with the same respect. And today the Trinity players will feel the tackles just as hard as Magne or Quinnell.
"Every time I go out on the rugby pitch I have a winning attitude and it doesn't matter where I'm playing or who I'm playing for."
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Mar 14, 1998|
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