James Hume has emerged as one of the form players - let alone centres - in Irish rugby in the past two months.

And at 23 years old, he's also gaining a reputation as one of the most honest speakers across the four provinces.

In November, following his player-of-the-match display against Leinster at the RDS, he spoke candidly about how tough he had found that month's Ireland camp, having watched on as Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose got the midfield minutes.

He'd been set a challenge by head coach Andy Farrell to impress over the December and January inter-pros and Heineken Champions Cup games, and it's a challenge he's answered emphatically.

While Ulster's Christmas schedule was sliced due to Covid postponements, Hume has been among the top performers in any game he's played since that Autumn Nations Series.

Looking at him on the pitch it's easy to think he's got the cockiness of youth; his celebration in front of the Leinster fans at the RDS following his match-winning try grabbed attention, as did his reaction to a big tackle on Gavin Coombes earlier this month, hooping and hollering after he knocked the Munster number eight into touch.

But after his honest conversation with the media in November, he was again an open book when discussing his form ahead of Saturday's Heineken Champions Cup meeting with Clermont Auvergne at Kingspan Stadium.

Despite being an Ireland international at 22, it's taken until recent months for him to realise he belongs on the big stage.

"Up until the start of the season I'd be bricking it going into games," he said.

"I'd be like, 'What if I don't perform well here? What if the other players make me look stupid? What if I’m not good enough?’

"I think that Leinster and Clermont weeks were the two ones where I realised I can do this, and it’s kind of fallen on with Munster and Northampton.

"I felt like I could look at those and feel I’m good enough at that level to put out a performance and it’s almost like doing what I know I’m good at, and not going outside my basic skills and what I do well."

Hume was a key figure when Ulster beat Clermont in France

The self belief hasn't arrived from nowhere though; it's the result of a conscious effort to remind himself of his strengths.

"One of my real focus points was just making a point at the start of every week that I need to have self belief," he said.

"Some games I would go in and take for granted that I'm there. I'd look at my opposition and now really appreciate how much damage I could actually do. Especially in the Leinster game, coming up against Robbie as my opposite number was a huge starting point. I'd trained against this guy, I know how good he is but I also know the threat I pose to him as well.

"Going away to Clermont and putting in a good performance against European giants is a massive confidence booster. Even if times do get tough in the future, I could almost look back on that and think I’m more than capable of being able to put a performance out there, and getting back to my pillars and basics."

Hume's played more than 50 times for Ulster since his debut in 2018, but it was August 2020 and the return of rugby from the Covid-19 recess that announced him to the wider rugby audience, impressing as Leinster made it to the Pro14 final against Leinster.

"I like a bit of outside encouragement, don't get me wrong, but at the end of the day that’s not who I’m trying to impress."

He made his Ireland debut against the USA last summer and has been selected in the wider squad twice since, most recently when Andy Farrell named his 37-man Six Nations squad on Wednesday.

His performances in recent months have seen some pundits suggesting he could force his way into contention for a starting spot in the tournament, and muscle in on the midfield monopoly held by Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki in recent years.

Pundits have been queuing up to praise him lately, but the centre says he tries to keep a distance from the reverence.

"I don't actively search for stuff like that but if it pops in my feed it’s good to hear.

"I like a bit of outside encouragement, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day that’s not who I’m trying to impress.

"My end goal isn’t to get people talking about me, it’s about what I can do for the team, for myself and achieve the goals I’ve set for myself. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but I try to block out the noise on what I have to do for each coming week."

Hume made his Ireland debut against the USA in July 2021

His footwork, and ability to step in close quarters, has been a particular area of praise. Hume says that trait is only one he discovered he had after he had lost weight while in the Ulster academy.

He admits it was "almost comical" how much he was eating in his school days, hitting 104.6kg at one stage, before trimming down to 96kg, which has been his fighting weight for the last few seasons. The change came after a stress-fracture to his foot, and a few stern words from the team nutritionist, made him realise he was carrying more weight than was sustainable.

"That period allowed me get back into shape.

"It was a big learning curve, even my girlfriend will tell you I'm so pernickety with my food, and scared of eating the wrong foods and getting back to that way. It's a constant moving beast trying to get the diet right and stay in shape."

While game time in the Six Nations is an obvious goal, he won't do his chances any harm with one more big showing against Clermont.

Ulster know they are qualified heading into the final round of Pool A games, but a win would see them secure home advantage in the second leg of the last 16, and maybe even beyond.

"As Kobe Bryant once said, 'The job's not over’, so we want to be in the best position possible at the end of this European Championship group stages, so we can get ourselves a home quarter-final.

"We’re treating this the exact same as every game we’ve had in this championship so far. Full steam ahead this week, the boys are going to be ready."

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