This article was originally published in The Belfast Telegraph on March 19, 2010.
Having made his Ulster debut last season, Ian Whitten is one of the province’s most promising young players. He was only too happy to share his thoughts on his progress to date.
“I’m very happy with how the season has been going so far. As a team I think we are playing better rugby than last year and we have had some very good performances, especially in the Heineken Cup, although it was disappointing not to qualify,” he said.
“Personally, I’m delighted to have played 12 times this year for Ulster and whilst I have had some good performances, there is always room for improvement. One of my personal highlights would have to be my first try for Ulster against Llanelli.”
Explaining what a young professional rugby player’s work schedule entails, he said: “A typical day of training would start with the team or units meeting in the morning, followed by a pitch session working on unit skills and team plays. After lunch there would be weights in the gym.
“I don’t really have any rituals before a game. If we are playing on Friday night I just try to relax during the day and make sure I eat at the right times, usually three or four hours before kick-off. After that I would try to arrive at the ground an hour and a half before kick-off to give me plenty of time to get my head right.”
But sometimes there are things over which players have no control and for which they cannot prepare. The situation in the Ravens’ recent British and Irish Cup outing against London Welsh was a case in point.
“As a back, the weather that night really ruined any chance of running rugby. We should have played a more direct and controlled game rather than trying to throw the ball about,” he admitted. “But we probably learnt from that; I think we’ll look to improve our accuracy and cut down on our mistakes. It was an important win for us because it meant our destiny was in our own hands. We knew that if we won our final game – with a try bonus – against Aberavon, we would go through.”
The Ravens did win at a canter, scoring 10 tries with Whitten getting the first of those. They had banked their bonus in under half-an-hour and have qualified for the semi-finals of the inaugural B&I Cup as a result.
The match against London Welsh had seen him playing alongside his younger brother, Alan, who entered the fray as a replacement. The Whitten boys are the fourth sibling partnership to have represented Ulster.
Asked if he found it strange to play alongside his brother, Whitten the elder said: “No it wasn’t; we have played with and against each other many times in the back garden! Before the match I just told him to work hard and put himself about in the loose. I thought he came on and played well.”
And catching up with Alan, I asked him what it was like for him to play in his first Ravens match.
“Obviously I was very proud and very privileged. It was nerve-wracking but also very exciting. I just went out to do my best and not let anybody down,” he said.
“I was pleased to get on and when I did I didn’t even notice the weather. I was pleased to get a couple of touches and to make ground and get over the gain line.”
With the season into its final third, his big brother has high ambitions for the remaining game.
“My hope for the remainder of the season is to help Ulster push for a top four finish in the Magners League and the Ravens to win the British and Irish Cup,” he said. “If we want a top four finish we need to get a result in every game from now on. Hopefully we can cope with the pressure and rise to the challenge.”