Brad Roberts loving life on Ulster stage
Not many players will have played at Murrayfield and the Principality Stadium in two of their first four professional games of rugby but that is just part of the incredible journey that Ulster hooker Brad Roberts has been on.
Roberts has gone from his native Durban to Wales, back to South Africa to playing his club rugby in Magherafelt for Rainey Old Boys before being drafted into the Ulster squad.
The 25-year-old has been an instant hit on and off the field, his all-action abrasive style has seen him seemingly make the step-up from All-Ireland League rugby to the professional game, while his flowing red mullet and moustache have already made him a cult hero among Ulster fans on social media.
“I played Sharks U18s Craven, which is the inter-provincial level at schools, I went to a club in Wales called RGC for a trial period then came home and ended up playing for the Sharks U19 in the Currie Cup,” said Roberts. “I started 13 of the 14 games and was hoping for a contract there but it never really worked out so I sacked rugby off for a little bit and went to university at Stellenbosch.
“I played a bit of social rugby and about a year and seven months into my studies I got a call from an agent saying there was a club in Ireland that was potentially looking for a hooker and would I be interested in going over and I said ‘well, why not’.
“I got an ancestral visa as my grandparents are Welsh and I came over and I have played for Rainey for a few years.”
Going from Durban to Magherafelt was a bit of a culture shock.
“Durban is so sunny, very laid-back tropical, I like Magherafelt as well...it is a nice place the people are very friendly, I have made a lot of good friends and I really enjoy the rugby but nothing compares to Durban, it is the best.”
Roberts has enjoyed his time in the All-Ireland League.
“It was tough, it is a good standard, the boys train hard and play hard and it is very competitive, weather-wise it is very different compared to the pitches in South Africa, which are always hard as it rarely rains,” he said. “The pitches are super-firm whereas here the conditions are suited to a more physical game, it was a big wake-up call but I think I stepped up to the challenge.”
The hooker has helped Rainey secure promotion to the third tier of the AIL for the first time in their history and bring the Ulster Senior League trophy to Hatrick Park.
“We are very lucky with our pack, the McCusker boys are giants, we are gifted with size and physicality which suits our game and it has done us good,” he said. “Rainey have been doing really well for the last couple of years by fronting up in the pack.
“Promotion against Blackrock was class, it was unbelievable, we had a bit of a slow start to the season and then picked up at the end and put ourselves in contention.
“We got the job done against Blackrock, which was a famous victory for Rainey and I really enjoyed it...it was great to be a part of that.
“The Ulster Senior League last year was the first time Rainey had won it overall and it was unbelievable as well, what a day to beat Banbridge at home to secure it.”
Roberts was set to leave Rainey but the lockdown put paid to that and it actually benefited him to stay with Rainey.
“Covid-19 is a terrible pandemic and pretty bad for everyone but it was a sort of a blessing in disguise for myself,” he said. “I was supposed to be heading back to Wales to RGC to play in the Welsh Premier League and then I had no idea when their season was starting and they said to keep in touch.
“Things were looking better in Ireland and our club Director of Rugby Brian Smith got a hold of me and said why don’t you come back and play for Rainey before you head back to Wales and I thought ‘why not’.
“I did a two-week quarantine, got back into training, played a few warm-up games and then just before the Ulster League we went back into another lockdown.
“I was just training at home doing my own workouts then one day John Andrews (Rainey coach) got a hold of me and said Ulster have identified you as the next hooker in line if there is an injury.
“Two weeks later I got a call from Bryn Cunningham saying we need you as injury cover and then I got my first cap two weeks later in Edinburgh.”
The hooker made his Ulster debut in a 43-14 win against Edinburgh.
“It was unbelievable, I have been fortunate to play at Murrayfield and the Principality Stadium so that marks two stadiums ticked off the list and that is what you get when you play at this level, I just soaked it all in and enjoyed it.
“My mindset in the Edinburgh game was ‘I have to do as much as I can here’, that was my first taste of professional rugby and I just threw myself at it and got heavily involved.”
“I was pleased with a couple of things in the game, the turnover and nearly scoring a try as well, the scrum did well, so I think I did well in that game.
“Physicalityy-wise it wasn’t that much of a step-up, although people don’t make as many mistakes, they didn’t miss tackles and in general it is more tidy and far more high-tempo rugby.”
Roberts’ one regret about his Ulster debut was that his father didn’t live long enough to see it happen.
“He passed away in 2019, he was a massive influence on me and I just wished he could have been there to watch or just even watched it on tv, he would had loved it,” said Roberts. “I really wanted to do him proud, he supported me through my whole career...just not on the field but off it as well.
“I always wanted to be a rugby player from throwing the ball around in the garden when I was a youngster and I really wanted to do it for him.”
“It was a pity he couldn’t be there or watch it on tv but I dedicated it to him and everything I do now is dedicated to him and I wish he could be here.”
Roberts scored his first Ulster try in last Friday’s 49-3 home win over Zebre when he galloped over from just inside the opposition’s half.
“There is nothing better than a front-rower getting the ball and looking up and there is no-one in front of you,” he said. “I really enjoyed it, to get my first try in my first home game at Kingspan Stadium was fantastic and a great memory.
“I was a bit shocked I got the ball and there was no-one around me, so I just had to go for it.”
Roberts is hoping he can return to South Africa with Ulster for the Rainbow Cup.
“The Rainbow Cup would be unbelievable, especially against the Sharks,” he said. “I don’t think it would get any better than potentially going home on a rugby tour and it is something I never thought would happen...going to Durban to play against the Sharks for Ulster.”