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'Chip on shoulder leaving Ulster motivates me in darkest times'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Long-serving Worcester hooker Niall Annett has given himself a career pat on the back ahead of his final match for the Gallagher Premiership club before his move to Bath, the opposition that is visiting Sixways this Saturday to wrap up the 2021/22 campaign. It was March 1 when the 31-year-old Irishman was unveiled as a new Bath singing, the front-rower deciding to move on from the Warriors after eight rewarding years with them.

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People might shrug their shoulders and go so what, that it’s only lowly Worcester but the fact that Annett has carved out a reputable Premiership career for himself is evidence of his sheer determination to individually be a long-term success in the game.

He had come through the ranks at Ulster but rather than sit behind Ireland hookers Rory Best and Rob Herring in the pecking order, he gambled in 2014/15 on spending a year in the Championship at Worcester and all these years later he is still playing in England and ready to join the new broom at Bath under the incoming head of rugby Johann van Graan.

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So many players who are ranked third and fourth for a provincial position at an Irish club opt to stay and wait it out for limited exposure but given the prominence he has enjoyed in England in following in the footsteps of fellow Ulsterman Gareth Steenson, who went on to help Exeter to title glory, Annett has called on young players similarly in the position he was in with Ulster to take the plunge and test themselves elsewhere rather than sit on the sidelines.

“Absolutely, Gareth was the example (of leaving Ireland for England) and then briefly before I left Ian Whitten was the example,” explained Annett to RugbyPass. “What I would say is the Irish pathway system is so strong, it’s an amazing system for producing at the very top of the tree the best international team that they can possibly produce.

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“But I would like to see more players not be happy and sit and walk around their hometowns in provincial gear and say they are pro rugby players. Go and challenge yourself. Put yourself in positions where it is difficult. It sometimes it isn’t as pretty but at the end of it, if you are not challenging yourself on a week to week basis I’d have concerns for where your career is going. I would like more Irish players stuck in that third/fourth choice to go to leagues where they are looked after and where they have the opportunity to go and really challenge themselves.”

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Annett reflects on his own career choices – moving to Worcester from the Ulster shadows – with great satisfaction. “Very positively. In their own way, the eight years at Worcester have personally been a success but with the club, it’s not necessarily been as successful as we wanted. 

“The decision was very clear, Rory Best was the out and out No1 hooker in Ireland and Rob and I were fighting really hard for that position (at Ulster). I didn’t do enough at that age or that stage to beat Rob into that space and wasn’t going to settle for sitting and playing a level of rugby like All-Ireland League. 

“I was determined and desperate to put my career in the right direction and in fairness to Dean Ryan, he offered me an opportunity to do that via the Championship. I suppose the chip on my shoulder has been a really useful tool, it has been a difficult tool to manage at times because in your own head you are having conversations that aren’t always very easy.

“But the chip on my shoulder having to leave Ulster has been one that motivates me in the darkest and deepest times whenever you need that little kick, whenever you need that inspiration to go and do extra work and work extra hard, so I would say all in all it has been a positive for me. I have had eight years in what I perceive is the toughest league in the world and there are hopefully even a few more of better rugby coming in the next couple of years.”

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What impressed Annett most about Worcester was the staunch fashion they stood by him following a season-ruining cruciate injury in September 2017 after he had returned to training following an ankle injury that cut short his previous campaign in February. “That year, in particular, was a hugely difficult one,” he reflected. 

“I lost my father and then about four weeks later tore my cruciate. When I reflect on that period, the club and the supporters showed me unbelievable loyalty in a period where a business like rugby doesn’t always do that. That is why the maximum of my effort goes into every performance. It’s almost like I feel indebted to the club for that. 

“It would have been easy for me to be spat out of the game sideways into who knows what sort of career after that. I have seen plenty of people that has happened to and I do feel grateful and very, very appreciative that didn’t happen to me. 

“There is a huge amount of gratitude because we have all seen guys get spat out into really difficult positions and I was probably very close to that. But at the time there were people in the club making decisions that looked after me and gave me the year I needed to go and prove my fitness and prove my rugby ability.”

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