|Venue: The Sportsground, Galway Date: Sunday, 27 December Kick-off: 19:35 GMT|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Ulster MW and BBC Radio Foyle, online, BBC app and BBC Sounds|
“Belfast winter or New Zealand summer?… Yeah, winter’s great.”
Matt Faddes lets out a quiet chuckle as he’s asked whether he would prefer the “beer and barbeques” of his native New Zealand’s current summer or a somewhat bleak and Covid-dominated Belfast Christmas.
Amid the widely-praised approach of its Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand has largely escaped the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.
Faddes, a polite and softly-spoken interviewee, admits his approach has been to turn off the normal social media channels that he would use to keep abreast of what’s going on at home.
“It seems to be going quite swimmingly back there,” adds the 29-year-old south islander, now in his second season at Ulster.
“It’s tough enough times [here] but when we put things into perspective, we get to come to work every day and do a job we love and see our mates, although we obviously follow some pretty strict protocols in regards to social distancing.
“It’s difficult and more niggly than previous Christmas times but it’s still a lot better than some other people are experiencing.”
‘Survival of the fittest’
After playing 14 times for Ulster in a Covid-hit debut campaign which saw the Irish province only play 24 games, the utility back has been a more regular fixture in Dan McFarland’s starting line-up to date this season, having started at wing in seven of the team’s 10 games.
The former Highlanders player, who scored 20 tries in 45 Super Rugby appearances before moving to Ulster 18 months ago, admits injuries to fellow backs Luke Marshall and Robert Baloucoune and international call-ups for Jacob Stockdale have helped his game time.
“It’s pretty much survival of the fittest at the moment,” he said.
“As a player, getting regular game time is everything – it breeds confidence.
“You work out combinations and personally for myself, it’s been great. I’ve been able to work on little things from previous seasons that I wanted to get better at so I’m definitely enjoying it.”
Faddes says the attacking instincts encouraged by the Ulster management also gives the backs from “nine to 15 a licence to have a bit of a crack” which makes being involved even more satisfying.
But while McFarland has been putting his faith in the Otago native, Faddes admits he can’t be certain he will still be at Ulster come next Christmas.
Like numerous members of the Ulster squad, his current contract is due to expire in July so Faddes says it’s a case of “seeing what happens”.
“[With Covid-19] It’s a bit of an unknown time at the moment anyway,” he continues.
“All I can do is play as best rugby as possible. If that’s good enough to re-sign here or whatever… it’s such an unknown.
“I can’t say I’m losing sleep over something in the future. I would say that’s a skillset of not just rugby players but sportspeople in general.
“You can’t just hope for things. You’ve got to put your best put forward and if that works, it works. If not you’ve just got to move on.”
This weekend instead of grilled lamb on the beach, Faddes is readying himself for wind and rain that is being forecast to roll into a Sportsound venue in Galway that invariably finds itself exposed to the elements.
“By the sounds of it, the conditions are pretty similar to what we experience here in Belfast with plenty of rain,” he said.
“They are a really physical side so we’ve got to prepare for that and acknowledge what their strengths are and try and counteract their game.”
Ulster without a win in Galway since 2015
Judging by his comments at Ulster’s pre-match briefing on Tuesday, McFarland has been reminding his players this week that the northern Irish province haven’t won in Galway since a scrappy 10-3 win in 2015, with the defeats including a 44-16 hammering two days before Christmas in 2017.
Faddes says Ulster can ill-afford to feel sorry for themselves after their two narrow European defeats over the past two weekends as they prepare to face a side that clinched the then Pro12 title as recently as five seasons ago.
“It’s just the sort of season that you have to move on and look at the next week and Connacht is that opportunity,” he said.
“You can be sitting and sulking about losing a game in the 85th minute or whatever it was.
“And with these interpros, they tend to be pretty much trial matches for the national squad.
“There is a lot of motivation to be selected to play in this game and the following two so there’s a lot of excitement in regards to the Connacht match.”