Callum Black – the former Ulster prop turned coffee and donut magnate – was kind enough to chat to Ulster Rugby Lad about life on an off the field.
A reliable servant to Ulster Rugby over the course of 7 years, Black made 141 appearances which saw the prop reach the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup in 2013 and 2014, and the final in 2012.
Currently plying his trade with the Worcester Warriors in the English Premiership, Black reflects on his time at Ulster and discusses his journey into the game.
Who or what made you passionate about rugby?
When I was at school I played a load of different sports. Up to the age of 13 or 14 I did swimming, cross country and stuff like that. I only really started playing rugby at the age of 13 or 14.
My parents were really good at taking me everywhere – driving me to swimming galas and stuff like that. My dad liked his rugby when he was younger. He was never pushy – just encouraging! He was always willing to drive me here, there and everywhere to play rugby.
It was only when I got to about 14 I actually started taking rugby a bit more seriously, playing outside of school or on the weekends.
Who was your biggest influence growing up?
Apart from my Dad, I had a teacher in middle school – Mr. Holby – who was passionate about rugby. He was our coach who loved the game and helped get me into it. It helped that I went to a school that had a really good rugby team.
When did you realise you had a chance of making it as a professional rugby player?
It was quite late on. However, I wasn’t sure if I would make it professionally.
I did my A-levels at a school called Colston’s in Bristol. I went there and was intent on playing rugby at the highest level I could. The school is renowned for producing professional rugby players (and is a very good school in its own right). We played in the Daily Mail Cup (the equivalent of the School’s Cup in England) which we won, and we had an undefeated season. We also went over and played Blackrock College and Terenure.
After A-levels a lot of the guys in my year got picked up by professional rugby teams. I didn’t get offered anything at that stage, but I was still determined to be a professional rugby player. I went to do a degree and was picked up by Worcester during my time at college. I also played Ireland under 21s.
What would you be doing if you weren’t playing professional rugby?
Well I’m quite into business – I started the coffee and donut shop called Guilt Trip in East Belfast with Darren Cave. We started it just about two years ago and the first couple of years have gone better than we could have imagined. There may be opportunities to expand and grow it more when in the future.
To be honest I have no real idea what I would have done if it hadn’t been rugby – I didn’t know when I was younger, and I still don’t know if I’m honest!
I did a sports coaching and conditioning degree – maybe I’d be doing something along those lines. All I knew is that I didn’t want to have an office job!
How did you end up going to Ulster?
I played underage for Ireland. My agent said that, being Irish qualified, there was an opportunity to play at Ulster as they needed props for that season. I met with David Humphreys and got a quick look around the city. He explained a bit what Ulster was about and what it would be like to play there. I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to try it and I’m very grateful I had the opportunity to play for the province.
Any favourite memories of Ulster?
I was there for 7 years – there are too many favourite memories to list!
There was the season we were undefeated in the group stages for Europe. Then there was the season we went 14 games unbeaten on the bounce – that was a great time. A special memory for me personally would be my 100th game where I managed to score a try which doesn’t happen too often! Beating Munster away was also brilliant.
It was a great time to join Ulster as there was some great competition and a really talented squad. There was of course some frustration about not winning any silverware during that period considering the amount of talent in the squad.
I still pop over for the odd day-trip to catch up with Darren and the boys. I’ve watched most of the Ulster games and will always have a big attachment to Ulster – I played there for so long, both my kids were born there – I will always feel like an Ulsterman!
Ulster have bolstered their front row with a couple of new players coming in and players who have come through the academy and done well. Any advice for young props at Ulster?
It’s not an easy position to play in. You have to give 100% every game or you’ll be shown up. First and foremost, focus on basics and work hard on the scrum and line-out – the set pieces are your bread and butter. Of course, these days you have to offer a lot around the pitch as well.
I’ve played with one of the new signings coming in, Gareth Milisanovich. He’s a great guy who will fit in really well. He’s a man mountain! Very strong guy, good skills and great in the set-piece. He can play on both sides of the scrum. Most recently he has played tight-head and that’s his preferred position.
When you think of the word successful who is the first person you think of and why?
Tiger Woods – in his time was at the absolute top of his game. I’m not a big golfer but I have a lot of respect for him as golf requires a great deal of mental strength and the way he came back was unbelievable.
How did you get in the right ‘head-space’ before games?
Everyone is different. I am fairly relaxed before games. I just stay focused on my own role and think about why I play the game and why I love it. Most importantly who you do it all for – for your family and loved ones. So that’s who I’m thinking of just before I step onto the field.
How has a failure or apparent failure set you up for a later success?
During my first season at Ulster I didn’t play a huge amount – it was such a good squad with so much competition. I came over and we reached the Heineken Cup final – it inspired me to reach that level as I hadn’t really been involved as much as I’d have liked that season.
Every time we started a new campaign the minimum requirement was top 4 and knock-out stages of Europe. Having that as a target every year spurred me and everyone else on.
Never actually winning silverware was a big driver – close encounters with success but not actually winning anything was a big driver – winning things is what motivates us.
What obsessions do you explore in your free time?
Everyone that knows me will say I am a bit obsessed with coffee. My kitchen in my house is a similar set-up to a coffee shop!
Outside of rugby a lot of time is taken up with admin stuff for Guilt Trip. I have two young daughters as well and a dog I love walking so I’m kept extremely busy! Anything to take your mind of rugby can help. That was one of the reasons for starting Guilt Trip – it’s a passion I can pursue outside of rugby.
What is the worst advice that you see or hear being dispensed in the rugby world?
There is a lot of pressure in professional sport. You see young kids play and you can see other parents and sometimes coaches put a lot of pressure on – no harm to them but I have always grown up playing sport for the love of it. Young rugby players must be allowed to enjoy what they do.
There is so much emphasis on gym work, size, power etc. However, basic skills are more important, and these are the things you learn when you are playing the game and having fun.
There are kids come through and are in a professional-type environment from such a young age – 14 or 15 – which is very young to be in that environment. So yeah, I’d say take the pressure off and emphasise playing for the love of the game, particularly for young players.
How is life in Worcester?
It’s been great. It’s been a big change from Ulster because we’re playing in a different league. It’s crazy how tight the Premiership is. On a given day anyone can beat anyone. It is so competitive, a very tough league. This season the big aim for Worcester was to play with a bit of consistency. It’s been a new challenge but I’m really enjoying it.
There’s a big Ulster connection here as well – Alan Solomons is the Director of Rugby then you have Doaky, Michael Heaney, Niall Annet. We all keep an eye on how Ulster are doing. We sat and watched Ulster play Leinster in the Quarter Final in Dublin. We were kicking off just after so didn’t get to see the full game as it happened but what a start – the boys put in an incredible shift!