Congratulations were due to Andrew Trimble on Friday evening as the long-serving wing set a new Ulster appearance record in the Heineken Cup, earning his 58th cap and surpassing the previous benchmark set by Dr David Humphreys who watched on as Ulster stumbled to a 27-16 victory over a weakened, but spirited, Montpellier in their pool five encounter.
What makes this record statistic impressive is that his 58 Heineken Cup caps have come consecutively and every one as starts. Not since his debut against Treviso in October 2005 has Trimble missed or been dropped from an Ulster XV selected for a Heineken Cup fixture. That’s an incredible feat of consistency, commitment and conditioning in the professional game.
There were no try scoring heroics by Trimble on this occasion as Ulster, chasing home advantage in a quarter-final, failed to register a bonus point try. Other results were kind enough to work in Ulster’s favour, however. Both they and Leicester have enough points in pool five to at least take one of the two best runners-up spots available – it’s a cushion, but neither side will want to settle for that with a pool decider at Welford Rd still to come.
It’s the fourth consecutive year that Ulster have been in the last eight, but they’re desperate to host a quarter-final with the re-development of Ravenhill in its final stages. They’ve made no secret of that aspiration and it’s a prospect which will hopefully inspire an impassioned performance and an epic finale to the pool stages against the Tigers.
It had looked for a moment that Trimble would have an opportunity to score a late bonus point try but he was unable to pick up a Jared Payne pass around his ankles and the possibility of a score in the corner slipped through his fingers. Nonetheless, even without a try, Trimble’s contribution on Friday night was typical of his physical and unwavering commitment to Ulster’s cause, in particular providing an imposing aerial threat to the Montpellier back three.
In his ninth full season with Ulster, Trimble will be as keen as anyone to win silverware this season. A Celtic League title in 2005-06 is now a distant memory and defeats in consecutive years to Leinster in Heineken Cup and PRO12 finals, as well as their disappointing European exit at the hands of Saracens last April, will have strengthened their resolve to go one further.
Now this might be unfair since Trimble is still the lower side of 30 but as one of the more seasoned members in the Ulster squad he has experienced more highs and lows in professional rugby than the majority of his teammates. Amongst those highs, Trimble’s try against Bath at the Recreation ground in the 2009-10 season stands out not only as the pick of his 22 Heineken Cup scores but as one of the best ever individual tries in the competition. His try that day helped Ulster to a first win on English soil, a catalyst to improved fortunes in the competition since. See it below.
Trimble has two tries in pool five so far, continuing his record of scoring at least once in each of the last nine seasons of Heineken Cup rugby. Further personal contributions include a brace of tries in Ulster’s 41-7 dismantling of Leicester in 2012 and a first half double against Toulouse in 2006, both at Ravenhill. Ulster’s quarter-final victory in Thomond two seasons ago will also rank highly amongst their collective achievements.
Trimble’s Heineken Cup performances have kept him in and around Ireland squads for almost a decade, but in an honest assessment Trimble has rarely looked like replicating the consistency he finds for Ulster on the international stage. Not that Trimble’s 50 Ireland caps, the last of which he won against USA last summer, are to be scoffed at. They have been earned, and are a testament to his commitment to sustaining a high level over a long period.
However, watching him frequently dominate high calibre opponents at Heineken level makes it frustrating that he hasn’t demonstrated the qualities that allow him to do so more regularly for Ireland, and it remains difficult to put a finger on why that has been as it is.
It could be that Trimble simply didn’t fit the game Eddie O’Sullivan or Declan Kidney wanted to play, but that would appear an unlikely and simplistic view since it was O’Sullivan that oversaw Trimble’s move from centre to the wing and under Kidney that Trimble had his best run of games for Ireland on the eve of the 2011 World Cup where he was primarily used as a substitute despite good form.
Perhaps Trimble’s greatest challenge when stepping up to that level has been mental, on coping with the additional pressure that comes with thinking he needs to make every opportunity count for fear of not having another run the following week resulting in mistakes creeping in. That is certainly a consequence of the in-out nature of Trimble’s international career, but if we’re to see his best for Ireland, he needs a run of being picked consistently, as he is for his province. I’d be surprised if Joe Schmidt doesn’t take a look at him – he needs to relax and play instinctively, as he no doubt will when starting against Leicester this Saturday.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images