Trimble raises Ireland's spirit

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Mention South Africa, who are Ireland's first opponents of the autumn, to Andrew Trimble and the first thought to spring to the mind of the dashing Ulster wing is not the Springbok. "I love the country, I've been there three times," says Trimble. "One day I might go back and work full-time in the townships. Not only are they lacking in material goods compared with what we've got, spiritually they are lost too."

Immediately you have a sense of what Trimble is all about. Nine caps to date for Ireland, yes; two coruscating tries in a win for Ulster over Toulouse last month as well. In the past year he has forced his way into an otherwise settled Ireland back division full of long-in-the-tooth Test stars: Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Girvan Dempsey and the like.

But rugby does not dominate the thoughts of this devout Christian student of theology at Belfast's multi-denominational Bible College. In the dressing room before every match he fishes out the Bible - usually turning to Psalm 84, "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord almighty" - and reminds himself that, however much fun he might be having at Lansdowne Road, or wherever, "when I go to heaven it will be a thousand times better... many more than a thousand times, actually".

Trimble, who has just turned 22, first travelled to South Africa with his school, and returned in two out of the past three summers to undertake missionary work, bringing rugby to the townships. He has been to the Eastern Cape, to a juvenile detention centre where there were youths charged with rape and murder, and to the poverty-ridden communities around Estcourt, north-west of Durban.

"The work has been hands-on, using sport as a ministry. We'd play rugby with these kids and then share our faith with them. It's been an enormous opportunity for me to share Jesus with them and that means a lot to me. Your heart goes out to them, the conditions are awful."

Trimble was brought up a Presbyterian and, while in camp with Ireland near Dublin, he has borrowed the team physiotherapist's room to get out his study books. On completion of his two modules this term - "Old Testament historical books, and New Testament epistles" - Trimble will be halfway through a degree course to become a Bachelor of Theology. It should take three more years. "The lecturers have been sending out notes and stuff, so I've been very busy," he says. "Not too much, though, there's still time for the rugby DVDs. I wanted to study a subject which was academically useful but which you get something more out of. I might teach, I don't know. I'm still young."

In common with the rest of the Ireland squad, Trimble got back from the June tour of the southern hemisphere, where they came frustratingly close to an away win over the All Blacks, and did conditioning work instead of playing in the early weeks of the season. "I'm feeling faster and stronger than ever." Though an outside-centre by preference, Trimble has lately been on the wing for Ulster, and with O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in situ in Ireland's midfield, it is fine for all concerned.

"Most of the game time I've got for Ireland has been on the wing, so it's probably ideal," says Trimble. "I played against New Zealand and Australia in their own backyard in the summer and that's as big as it gets for a young fella like me. It makes me think I'm a better player, and if you think like that it goes a long way to helping you perform like that."

With Australia and the Pacific Islanders to follow South Africa at Lansdowne Road, Ireland's coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, has promised to rotate his squad, with less experimentation planned for the Six Nations. Trimble, from Coleraine, has started Ireland's last six matches, which adds up to a three-from-four permutation with Dempsey, Geordan Murphy and Shane Horgan in the back three.

"Ireland have got the Triple Crown but the guys are very ambitious," says Trimble. "It's something [lock] Paul O'Connell talks about a lot; he says how much talent there is in our squad, and how much potential. We can't be satisfied with Triple Crowns."