SITTING IN FRONT of the media, via Zoom, just after lockdown last September, Ulster centre James Hume declared that his five-year plan had him assuming the outside centre jersey at the province on a consistent basis by the end of the season.
At the time, it was a bold statement. While nobody doubted Hume’s burgeoning talent, the likes of Luke Marshall and Will Addison would surely have a say in whether he’d be handed starts throughout the season, while he’s still only 22 and developing as a player.
But eight months after rugby’s resumption, and off the back of an outstanding solo try against Leinster in the Guinness Pro14 final, Hume has nailed down the centre jersey and then some, starting 20 of Ulster’s games since then and playing the full 80 in all but three of them.
He has been helped to a degree by the fact that Marshall and Addison have been injured, which would have led to a few more weeks off than he has had, but that shouldn’t downplay the fact that Hume has earned his starts, holding off another highly thought-of prospect in Stewart Moore.
James Hume at Ravenhill. Source: Stephen Hamilton/INPHO
So, when put to him how his plan has played out since August, Hume naturally smiles when he reflects, admitting: “I feel it’s went pretty well so far and I feel I’ve put the best version of myself on the pitch.
“The key for me now… Obviously, Lukey’s been injured, so when he comes back I don’t want to be happy with alternating, I want to stay there. It’s up to me not to be comfortable where I am and keep working every day to get better.
The five-year plan, which was written up with current Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper when the pair were both at RBAI and Hume was just about to join the academy, was ambitious in its scope and the centre did admit that there already has had to be a re-writing of it given how quickly he has achieved his third year target. One imagines the word ‘Ireland’ will likely feature soon.
His overall game has improved as the season has progressed, particularly as he has forged a more recognisable partnership with Stuart McCloskey at inside centre. Always defensively sound, the former Ireland U20 international has added an attacking edge, as highlighted by two searing breaks against Northampton Saints in the Challenge Cup quarter-final two weeks ago.
But even more pleasing for the 22-year-old than reaching his intended goal for the season is how he’s got to where he is, and to judge that, he brings the conversation back to that post-lockdown media session in September.
“I did a press conference just after lockdown where I said about my mental strength and how I thought I lacked in that department. That’s not something really that shows to fans or anything, that’s something interior in my intrinsic motivation,” he says.
“We listen to a lot of podcasts, self-improvement work, so when you read up a lot it motivates you to do more when you’re in training. That’s driving me to do an extra session. There’s loads of bits and bobs I’ve been working on.”
The drive to improve his mental strength has taken him away from rugby too. While walking the dog, Hume will throw on one of those motivational podcasts. He’s been reading more at home. In team meetings, he’s started taking more notice of Dan McFarland’s psychology-driven points.
“I like putting the onus on myself and seeing what works well for me, and that’s a battle to try and get better,” he adds.
Hume following Ulster’s win at Northampton. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
A good test will be tomorrow night at Kingspan Stadium when Ulster come up against Connacht in their opening Rainbow Cup game, with Andy Friend likely to counter the McCloskey-Hume pairing with an equally talented centre combination of Bundee Aki and Tom Daly.