It’s been a long time since The Demented Mole shook the dirt off his mighty paws and focused his myopia on once-proud Ulster. There was a background article in the works – there always is, it’s just that time and topicality seem to escape them – before Les Kiss resigned his post, but the timing of his departure set against the background of the Jackson/Olding trial throws the disfunction of the organisation into relief.
Whether or not Kiss’s decision to remove himself from the job was a pre-emptive move before being sacked is, to my eyes at least, irrelevant. I don’t think that his resignation has, or that his sacking would have, changed my opinion of the man: he is someone who has made a very significant contribution to Irish rugby, who has always carried himself with modesty and dignity, and is obviously a thoughtful and decent man.
However, decency doesn’t always get the ship to dock. The head coach’s primary requirement, a requirement made by both the board and the fans, is to pile up the wins. Herm Edwards, the former New York Jets head coach, put it best [in every way – his simplicity of language, his terseness, his emphasis and diction, but primarily his clear distinction between the reasons behind why you do something contrasted against why you don’t do something else]: “You play to win the game. You don’t play to just play it.”
The Mole generally avoids the hypothetical world, but if you can imagine a scenario where a head coach is doing an outstanding job of drilling and mentoring his side to be better individual players and a more coherent team, but that the side keeps losing narrowly due to egregious refereeing failures or ludicrous instances of bad luck, then you can imagine how that scenario ends as well: all the fans get the hump, the executive is sick of hearing about it and it’s exit stage right for the imaginary head coach to the tune of ‘Sack the Hypothetical Board’.
Performances told anybody watching Ulster even relatively closely that Kiss can’t escape blame for how his team were discharging their duties. They weren’t the hypothetical blameless side of the last paragraph, robbed by the ref and wounded by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For a coach who was so experienced at the highest level of the game [with a CV showing past positions with the Springboks, the Waratahs and Ireland] and who was a proven innovator as a defensive director [appreciate it or not, the choke tackle was the most original defensive technique of the last decade], Kiss’s Ulster side looked strangely loose and even underprepared when they didn’t have the ball.
Ulster Says “No Thanks”, “No Idea”, “I Don’t Have The Answer”
One of Kiss’s biggest critics was the former Ulster, Ireland and Lions blindside Stephen Ferris, currently enjoying a second act on BBC Northern Ireland as the disgruntled voice of the Ulster Rugby faithful. The Maghaberry man displays all the traits of a classic populist firebrand: he shoots from the hip, he says what he thinks, he takes no prisoners et cetera ad nauseam.
His December interview with Jonny Waterson of the Irish Times was tough going. Scanning through it, the faint hope that Ferris was going to say anything even momentarily insightful receded until The Mole got to the tags below the line and confirmed that it had just been one long bout of grousing, transcribed almost verbatim. Jaysis indeed. I heard and saw a few comments later in the day that lauded him for his “honesty”, which is normally how a certain tranche of sports fans react whenever a former player cribbs and moans in public. But Ferris wasn’t being honest about his own faults: he was bleating about what he saw as other people’s faults.
I’ve never thought of Ferris as an astute judge of the game, and now that his playing career is over and he’s employed as a pundit, that’s exactly what he’s supposed to be: a judge of the game.
I think it’s disingenuous of him to adopt a passive tone and tweet about people “get[ting] thrown under the bus”, when he has been one of the lads trying to manhandle Antipodeans beneath the Routemaster at the 325 bus stop over the last three or four months. “A lot could be said about Les Kiss’s job if things don’t go well in the next six weeks,” he told The Inky Rag back in early December, before having a pop at Kiss’s assistant, trophy-magnet Jono Gibbes, the following month: “The pack go away to Connacht and get absolutely demolished. Jono Gibbes isn’t even there. He’s back in New Zealand eating his Christmas dinner. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
AIL-ing Clubs [Pun Of the Year]
Ulster can’t even claw the thin delusional blanket of the amateur game in the northern province being in rude good health over themselves of a winter evening. There’s neither warmth nor comfort to be had there. The Ulster clubs are in serious decline. It’s a long time since Dungannon raided south to take the AIL against Cork Con in the 2000-01 decider in Lansdowne Road.
While that was the only time an Ulster club has won the AIL, they were big time outfits throughout the 2000s. Now Dungannon – home club of Irish captains Willie Anderson, Paddy Johns and David Humphreys – are in the fourth stream, and Instonians [home of Lions captains Sam Walker and Robin Thompson] aren’t even in the competition. It’ll already be known to many of our readers, but there’s not a single Ulster club in the top rank of the AIL:
- 1A 0
- 1B 3 [Ballynahinch, Banbridge, Ballymena]
- 2A 3 [Malone, City of Armagh, QUB]
- 2B 4 [Rainey OB, Dungannon, Belfast Harlequins, City of Derry]
- 2C 2 [Omagh, Bangor]
Whether that is a ‘merely’ significant or genuinely existential problem for rugby in Ulster is a matter for debate, but it certainly isn’t a standalone issue or completely disconnected from the professional game.
That Gum You Like Is Coming Back In Style
The phrase “papering over the cracks” has been used so often in relation to Ulster Rugby in recent times that The Mole has become distrustful of it. It’s the disgruntled fan’s reaction to anything that threatens to undermine his determinedly downbeat view of the outfit. I don’t think that every win that Ulster manage is some sort of ruse to fool me into thinking they’re going to be European semi-finalists for the next five years in a row. I just think that they’re Ulster.
Every side has to want to get better: no man has the right to limit the march of a nation, so to speak. But if you reject realism in favour of dreamery, you can be badly let down and become disillusioned. Ulster have the trappings of a ‘big’ team, but they’re not a successful one, and rarely have been over the last quarter of a century.
There was so much positivity when Kiss’s appointment was announced that there was always the chance of an enervating comedown following the big sugar-rush. The Australian was coming off back-to-back Six Nations as a senior assistant coach and his stock was giddily high. The Mole feels a degree of sympathy if the Ravenhill regulars feel particularly downhearted, having raised their own hopes … but there’s also a sense of deja vu about it.
“In fact in one of the provinces, Ulster, more money was pumped in because they don’t have the same revenue streams as Munster and Leinster, and they used the money primarily to strengthen their squad by importing really good foreign players, and that’s been a success.”
Paul ‘Naughty’ McNaughton was outgoing manager of the national team in January 2012 at the time when he gave the interview from which the above quote was extracted. The ‘really good foreign players’ hired were the three South Africans in 2010-11 [World Cup winners Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller, and 20-cap Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg] and the two New Zealanders [World Cup winning tighthead John Afoa and Auckland Blues outside back Jared Payne] in 2011-12.
At the time, Ulster were a fast-rising force. They had endured a hopeless wallow in the three seasons spanning from 2007-08 to 2009-10 – finishing either eighth or ninth in the Celtic League three years in a row – but David Humphreys’ promotion from Director of Operations to Director of Rugby at the start of the 2010-11 season marked a significant change. Humphreys had assumed the former role when he moved directly from the pitch to the head office on the cessation of his playing career at the end of the 2007-08 season. He spent two seasons learning the ropes before promotion to head ringer in time for the 2010-11 season. While the two titles – Director of Operations and Director of Rugby – seem to imply some degree of parity in rank, the latter carries a massive amount more heft. The Mole would argue that this was proved when Humphreys oversaw Ulster’s qualification for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup and their rise from eighth to third in the Magner’s League in his first season, 2010-11. Humphreys couldn’t make much impact in the D.O.O. job, but he could be really effective as D.O.R.
The influx of foreign talent made an enormous contribution to levering Ulster out of mediocrity. They were the external force that broke the inertia on the pitch and established a momentum that took the province all the way to the Heineken Cup final in 2011-12. Now, they got pummelled in Twickenham, but it was at the hands of peak Leinster, as good a club side as European club competition has seen.
Even before they had reached that final however, Humphreys was already planning his next move. He was going to grease McCluskey and Sollozzo in the diner. Metaphorically speaking.
As early as February 2012, with four months left to play in the season, the future of Brian McLaughlin as Head Coach of Ulster Rugby was already decided: he didn’t have one. McLaughlin’s stint at Ulster necessitated a career break from his permanent and full-time job at Royal Belfast Academical Institute [RBAI] and, having taken up the role in July 2009, he would have been entering into the fourth year of his sabbatical. The career break opportunities afforded to teachers in Northern Ireland are similar to those in the republic, namely “a period of special leave of absence without salary for a period of not less than one year and not more than five years.”
The temporal issue is key, if not immediately obvious. Humphreys’ hand was gently forced by employment legislation and by the law of probabilities: McLaughlin still had some time on the clock from RBAI, but if he was given a contract as head coach – and not another year long extension that would invite accusations of his being a lame duck – then it would take him right up to the five year maximum and he would lose his school position and his pension. If he was sacked late in his term, it would put him in an invidious position.
That Humphreys wanted McLaughlin on board and valued his expertise seems evident; if he was ruthless enough to remove him from the head job against the backdrop of Ulster’s most successful season in six years, he was ruthless enough to cut him out of the picture altogether. After all, at that point McLaughlin could always go back to his teaching job, and his stature in both rugby circles and his immediate environment of the school would have made for a very comfortable position. However, The Mole surmises that McLaughlin wanted to stay in rugby full time, and that Humphreys was amenable to making that happen. The latter was quoted as saying that “The option of the Academy role offered Brian long-term stability and the security to leave his teaching job in order to coach full time.” The Director of Rugby is/was sufficiently hardnosed that he wouldn’t have given out a permanent position as a sop for having brought McLaughlin’s coaching career to a very public halt, without thinking that he could be of benefit to Ulster too.
And at the time, McLaughlin was straightforward – even bullish – with regards to his ongoing relevance and importance in Ulster Rugby, even in the face of the public diminution of his position, saying, “We all know the crucial role our overseas players play in our success, but it is imperative we foster local talent in the and my new role within the Academy will ensure that I continue to play a leading role in the development of both Ulster and Irish Rugby.”
The Necessary Background
McLaughlin’s role wasn’t to set up a new academy system; the Ulster Academy had been evolving for almost seven years by the time he took on his role, having originally been a part of the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland [SINI], itself a partnership between the University of Northern Ireland at Jordanstown and Sport Northern Ireland, the regional government sports council for Northern Ireland.
It was in July 2005 that former Irish international and Heineken Cup-winning second row Gary ‘Boat’ Longwell was appointed as High Performance Manager for Rugby, with a twin role “to provide a High Performance Planning and Coaching role to the SINI rugby squad … [and] ensure that high performance players are identified and developed [for the Ulster Branch IRFU]”.
As we have written before, the academy system was in its infancy at that stage; for example, there was a PWC-sponsored national High Performance Select Group initiative of young players drawn from the four provinces started by the IRFU in 2007. That was the same year in which Longwell [then titled as Head of Performance at the Ulster Academy] gave an excellent insight into the structure of the academy in an interview with the Ulster Rugby Website; it’s well worth a read in its entirety.
The Mole would put forward the argument that the flaws in the Ulster Academy – flaws which we will cover later in the article – were disguised by an outstanding first intake. 1984 was an annus mirabilis for rugby in Ulster, with four test internationals, two ‘A’ internationals and an Exeter Chiefs legend born in a ten-month spell: John Andress [January ’84]; Tommy Bowe [February ’84]; Gareth Steenson [May ’84]; Lewis Stevenson [June ’84]; Ryan Caldwell [September ’84]; and Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble [both October ’84].
Ulster provided a province-leading 9 of 26 players in the Irish squad sent to the IRB U21 Rugby World Cup in Mendoza in June 2005. Aside from the nine Ulstermen, there were six players from Leinster, six from Munster, four from Connacht and one from Saracens … and the one from the Exiles system, Saracens hooker Stuart Philpott, joined Belfast Harlequins and the Ulster Academy before the year was out. It could easily have been even more. Lewis Stevenson, Dungannon’s Oisin Hennessy and Paul Marshall [born July 1985] had all featured for the U21s in the preceding U21 Six Nations, and superstar Bowe had already made his test debut in November of the year before against the US Eagles.
However, the production of the academy since then strongly points to that year being an anomaly. A smattering of internationals and some good players certainly progressed through it in the following years but, given the resources afforded it and the historical strength of the game in the province, it seems legitimate to argue that it was not performing optimally, and that there were seven lean and ugly kine in the byre.
While changing the head coach was his primary motivation in removing McLaughlin, Humphreys’ bold stroke was part of a bigger picture, namely the establishment of a baseline of long-term performance, powered by the only method the IRFU’s strict rules on overseas players allowed. The big-name foreign players had made a beach-head, and the Director of Rugby wanted to pile in behind them and entrench Ulster as a consistently competitive outfit, in the same manner as Leinster and Munster. Humphreys was aware that the short term fix wouldn’t translate to long-term success, and that the surest route to a dependably competitive Ulster lay in an academy that unfailingly turned out accomplished young players.
Allen Clarke, The Man They Couldn’t Kill, was given the role of Elite Performance Development Manager with Ulster Rugby six weeks after Ulster were beaten finalists in the Heineken Cup. Clarke had been employed by the IRFU in a similar role [High Performance Manager] for the previous five years, and Humphreys was quoted in the Irish Times article linked to above about the group he had assembled to direct the Ulster Academy:
“The team of Gary Longwell, Brian McLaughlin and now Allen Clarke will ensure that we deliver, and maintain, a world class High Performance Academy Programme which will be an integral part of delivering on Ulster Rugby’s ambitious targets.”
Going by the date of his appointment, Clarke would have worked with Longwell for approximately one year in the Ulster Academy: in July 2013, Longwell moved full time to SINI as Performance Skills Coach. One year into the power-sharing agreement, the first member of the triumvirate was gone. Clarke was appointed Assistant Coach [Forwards] in the senior set-up in the summer of 2014, vacating his position in the academy after two seasons. Two down.However, just like The Return of the King, there was another ending to follow; it’s just dénouement after dénouement up north. McLaughlin’s departure from his [permanent] post in July 2015 came as a surprise. The academy had moved into purpose-built facilities in Ravenhill the previous year, and his decision to move to a coaching role with City of Armagh, then in Division 2B of the AIL, didn’t make much sense to the outside observer.
Things Fall Apart
Humphreys’ departure for Gloucester in June 2014 is quite a while ago at this stage, and few haven’t come to terms with the reality of it, but at the time it was a big shock. There was some loose talk that he was in the running for the IRFU post that David Nucifora now holds – and the timeline fits, just – but the decision to up sticks and leave seemed to come out of the blue. While he didn’t bring a pot to Ravenhill in his executive stint, he was instrumental in turning the province around from a chronic underperformer into a team who were capable of mixing it with the best five or six teams in Europe and holding their own.
Unfortunately, his legacy was wasted: the experience-heavy academy management that he put in place was already showing signs of weakness before he left, and completely disintegrated within 15 months of his departure. In examining the production of players, it seems like it never really got going.
Of the 23 forwards in the Ulster senior squad, only seven are Ulster Academy graduates:
- Chris Henry ,
- Kyle McCall ,
- Iain Henderson ,
- Alan O’Connor *,
- Jonny Andrew ,
- Tommy Hagan  and
- Ross Kane .
The 35-year old Rory Best predates the Ulster Academy system. He made his way into the Ulster squad by dint of his performances for Irish underage sides and the AIL; it was only at the end of his first season playing professionally for the province [2004-05] that the SINI/Ulster Academy was established. While Best had spent some time with the Falcons Academy when he was studying Agricultural Science at Newcastle University, he’s an Ulster product through-and-through. It’s just that he’s older than the Academy, and thus doesn’t come under its purview. The Mole has written about squad age-profile before and it’s something I tend to keep an eye on amongst the provincial squads. We started an assessment [focussing on the forwards component of the Ulster squad] through this lens at the end of last season, but like many other articles, it got overtaken by current affairs before a satisfactory conclusion could be reached. Topicality may be suspect, but it’s catnip to the casual reader.
Another thing that has proven popular over the last few years seems to be kicking a team when they’re down. Huzzah!If that’s the read here, it’s not completely unintentional. Looking at the recent record of the Ulster Academy as a neutral, with specific regard to its production of forwards for the senior squad, it’s so clearly inefficient as to be irritating. And that’s to somebody with no stake in the enterprise. If you’re an Ulster fan I’d imagine it has you climbing the walls.
Leinster currently have 26 forwards in their squad, 20 of whom graduated from the province’s academy [the six ‘outsiders’ are Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss, Scott Fardy, Sean Cronin, Ian Nagle and Mick Kearney, who was a Leinster Sub-Academy member but did his Academy stint in Connacht]. At the time of writing, Munster have 24 forwards in their senior squad, of whom 15 are Munster Academy graduates. Chris Cloete, Robin Copeland, Gerbrandt Gobler [ooh!], Jean Kleyn, Rhys Marshall, C.J. Stander, Ciaran Parker [Sale], Kevin O’Byrne [Connacht], and Jerry Loughman [Leinster] are the nine exceptions.
Even Connacht [plucky little Connacht] have more of their own academy-produced forwards in their senior squad than Ulster have: Andrew Browne, Dave Heffernan, Denis Buckley, Eoghan Masterson, Eoin MacKeon, Finlay Bealham, James Connolly, Sean O’Brien, Shane Delahunt and Ultan Dillane are the 10 Connacht Academy graduates of the 23 forwards in the western province’s senior squad.
We’ll Just Wait Till Another One Comes Along …
Consider recent Irish U20 forwards like No8 Lorcan Dow [2015, 9 starts + 0 substitute appearances], lock Alex Thompson [2015, 9+0], flanker Frankie Taggart [2014, 5+4], flanker Conor Joyce [2013, 9+0], and lock John Donnon [2013, 8+1]: those five players were the most capped Ulster-based forwards in their respective U20 age grades. All of them were involved at some stage in the Ulster Academy and none of them are now contracted to Ulster Rugby.There are currently seven back rows in the Ulster senior squad: Coetzee [NIE], Deysel [NIE], Diack [IQ], Henry, Rea, Reidy, and Ross. The first three are South Africans by birth; Reidy is a New Zealander, and Clive Ross is a Corkonian who arrived in Ravenhill via Lansdowne RFC. Of the two Ulstermen only Chris Henry, the 33 year old, is an academy graduate. That’s dysfunctional. When you compare the position-group to those of the other provincial squads, it’s quite shocking.
All nine of Leinster’s senior back rows are graduates of the provincial academy; only three of Munster’s eight [Cloete, Stander and Copeland] are from outside their academy; and of Connacht’s eight, four of them are not academy graduates: Jake Heenan [NZ], Jarad Butler [NZ], Naulia Dawai [Fiji] and John Muldoon [predates academy system].
What piques The Mole’s interest is the depth of thought, or even the level of awareness, behind Ulster’s dismissive strategy of cutting their own graduates – something with repercussions this wide-ranging would want to be the result of strategy, rather than just the accumulated results of a number of decisions taken in isolation on their young players. Where do Ulster think they’re going to get their forwards from if they don’t promote them from the academy? A secondary question is whether or not they consider selection for the Irish U20s an important criterion – looking at the forwards in their squad, it doesn’t seem to carry much ballast.
The Ulster Branch describes its academy selection process below:
“The High Performance Pathway begins with identifying U16 club and school stream players.This pathway continues at U17 level leading to U18 clubs and U18 schools representative teams.
The pathway progresses to U19 where these two streams amalgamate and culminates at age grade with the Ulster U19 provincial team. As the players progress through the pathway they develop strategic, tactical, technical, physical and mental skills. Their potential to be recognised as a Sub Academy or Academy player after U19 level is assessed against these five performance characteristics.”
Hard To Explain
The amount of wastage that the show runners in the Ulster Academy have overseen – specifically amongst intake forwards – is really startling. There’s a legitimate argument that the Leinster model [of almost complete reliance on their academy with regards to procuring players] isn’t optimal for the other provinces, given the different playing populations and demographics in the country. However, the academy system is always going to be a vital factor in any provincial set-up. You simply can’t leave it to its own devices. You have to tend it with great diligence. Because, to a large extent, you are what you produce as a province.
There are always going to be background stories as to why certain players don’t make the grade, stories that the general Irish rugby fan will probably never be privy to. That’s not the issue here; this article isn’t about voyeurism. What has struck The Mole most forcibly in researching this topic has been the grinding inefficiency in terms of forward production in the Ulster Academy, and specifically the repeated failures to turn U20 internationals into professional rugby players in the last five years.
Either there’s a juicy story behind every player, or Ulster’s academy is more or less wholly ineffective at turning out forwards. The scale of the problem is that significant.
No Forwards Please, We’re Ulstermen
What adds interest is that delineation between the production of forwards and backs. It’d be more understandable if the academy was a complete clusterf*ck: one would be forced to conclude either that a] the system ground up and made sh*t of whatever young players went into it, or b] that there was no talent worth speaking of in the first place, and that they could have had Plato running the academy and despair of turning out pupils who could spell their own names.
However, the situation is a firm c] Neither Of The Above. A fairly steady stream of talented and well-coached backs has emerged from the Ulster Academy over the last half-decade to adorn both the provincial and national sides. So the system half works.
Backs For The Future
Find The Angles
Because of the IRFU-imposed strictures on squad make-up, there’s not a huge market to avail of in terms of changing playing personnel. Your academy is key to your ability to compete in both tournaments. Despite the trappings of a major power – an outstanding stadium, large attendances, first-rate training facilities, high-quality foreign players [Piutau and Coetzee have both proven themselves sensational performers at the highest level of the game] – Ulster are presently a second-rate outfit. And they’re a second-rate outfit heading backwards. Their inefficient academy is not the only reason behind that, but it’s a significant contributing factor.
We’ve referenced Toulouse’s idealised squad breakdown before – one-third foreigners, one-third French players from other clubs, one-third Espoirs from the youth system – but Irish squads have specific limitations in recruiting compared to their French or English counterparts. And no province [or franchise, or region, or club] can get everything right with their player retention, or even the day-to-day management of personnel. Leinster decided that Tadhg Beirne wasn’t worth the candle and let him take the ferry to Holyhead, while Munster successfully contrived to half-ruin J.J. Hanrahan’s career. It happens. From the organisation’s perspective, it’s important to minimise the damage and learn from it, but you can’t hope to avoid it forever.
Beyond the production and management of your own academy prospects, one of the places where there’s room for manoeuvre is in finding Irish-heritage players, be it in Europe or further afield.
And there’s something positive to be said for Ulster’s talent spotting in this field: Robbie Herring, South-African born, and qualifying through his mother’s Belfast-born father and Sean Reidy, himself Irish-qualified through a Castlegregory-born grandparent , have both been reliable, productive players for the province who have been good enough to earn Irish caps under Joe Schmidt.
The Mole respects the scouting and resourcefulness that gets players like Reidy and Herring to a province. We’ve long been fans of ASM Clermont’s ability to exploit the worth of undervalued players – the likes of Cudmore, Bardy, Vosloo, Debatty, James, Nadolo etc. I always compared them favourably to Toulon: Clermont used their wit, energy and self-awareness to scout out players who they thought undervalued in positions of need, could fit their style and then developed them to become big stars in the Auvergne; Toulon just collected guys who were already big stars and paid them massive amounts of money.
Now, with that said, it isn’t as though the recruitment sergeants at Ulster haven’t managed to find some far-flung Johnny Foreigners with Irish ancestors who couldn’t do the job, rather than equally inept locals. Bronson Ross spent two and a half seasons at the province, Ruaidhri Murphy a half season less. It’s fair to say that neither made a memorable impact.
While recognising him as a good player, The Mole is conflicted on the recruitment of Herring: he got a big push directly at the expense of Niall Annett, a home-grown player who had been an outstanding U20 international, starting 18 games [and scoring six tries] in two seasons at the age-grade and captaining the side in his second year.
Annett was the best Ulster age-grade forward in four or five years – probably since Stephen Ferris – and it was an awkward move to bring somebody just over a year his senior in ahead of him. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of providing competition for a guy whose underage career marks him out as a blue chip prospect, but it seemed [from the outside] that the lion’s share of opportunities went to Herring and that Annett wasn’t given a fair shake.
He had an offer from Worcester Warriors and took it, speaking candidly of his decision. Since arriving at Six ways he has been a really solid performer, and despite a nightmare year with injuries, has been resigned for the 2018-19 season.
In the Mole’s [admittedly imperceptive] eyes, he’s a player who Ulster should definitely be looking to bring home – a proven leader, someone with great pedigree in the Ulster system, but who hasn’t been blighted or involved in the last three seasons of back-biting and unrest. Rory Best’s immense career will surely culminate at RWC19 in Japan [he’ll be 37 in August of that year] and while Ulster have some decent hookers on their books at the moment, bringing Annett back to the province could provide them with a minor version of the spur that the return of Cullen and Jennings brought to Leinster.
As The NIQs Perform, So Does The Province
Three of Ulster’s Non-Irish Eligible players have taken home the Celtic League/Pro 12 Player of the Year: Ruan Pienaar in 2010-11, Nick Williams in 2012-13 and Charles Piutau in 2016-17. As recruiting goes, Ulster have obviously got some things very right. However, individual players winning individual awards is a very narrow lens through which to examine recruitment, and one that isn’t reflective of the wider picture and its impact. Ulster’s NIQ/NIE recruitment is easily broken into three classes:
- the hugely successful first class of Muller [2010-14], Pienaar [2010-17], Wannenberg [2010-12], Terblanche [2011-12], Afoa [2011-14], and Payne [2011-]
- the journeyman class of Herbst [2014-], Ludik [2014-] and Franco van der Merwe [2014-17]
- the ‘everything went wrong’ class of Coetzee [2016-], Piutau [2016-18], Arno Botha , Jean Deysel [2017-18] and Schalk van der Merwe [2017-18]
There’s really only one player that crosses the boundaries: Nick Williams. The big Aucklander was an inspired acquisition from Italian makeweights Aironi, and proved to be a massive upgrade over the man he replaced, Pedrie Wannenberg. Wannenberg never really seemed to convince either the Ulster management or fanbase in comparison to his other first classers, and subsequently found himself able to happily negotiate an exit to Castres when his two-year contract ended. Williams came in on new coach Mark ‘Cowboy’ Anscombe’s say-so [they had a shared New Zealand history] and proved a man reborn after a singularly unconvincing first stint in Ireland with Munster.
We’ve already sung the praises of the first class – a trio of World Cup-winners, two Springbok regulars in Wannenberg and Terblanche, and a very high quality Auckland utility back who would progress to be a Six Nations-winning outside centre and a touring Lion. Their recruitment gave Ulster a massive shot in the arm and turned the province from no-hopers to two-front competitors within a year.
The second class [Ludik, van der Merwe and Herbst] was obviously a big step down from their predecessors. The player market had changed, the IRFU’s general stance on foreign players had hardened and Ulster’s stock in the provincial game had risen: they were no longer seen as a charity case who needed a hand-out, but as an equal partner who had to fight their own corner. Two of the players recruited in this environment were like-for-like replacements – Herbst for Afoa and van der Merwe for Muller – and they simply couldn’t fill the shoes left to them. The third, Louis Ludik, has been a solid player without ever threatening to be a spectacular success. With Payne pushed into centre and spending more time with Ireland, Tommy Bowe missing a huge amount of rugby through injury and Nick Williams’ form in decline, Ulster began to fade as a force.
However, that downturn became a collapse when Ulster returned to the Big Name Market. It’s as much a case of luck as anything else. Recruiting Charles Piutau was a massive coup at the time it was announced, but he has proved to be an expensive bauble. That’s not to say that he hasn’t been an effective player in terms of personal performance – a brief check of the Pro14 individual statistics will show that he is a league leader in a number of categories, and as mentioned above, he was hailed as the best player in the league last year – but he’s paid a staggeringly expensive salary [estimated at some €600k. p.a.] and Ulster were short in so many areas that loading all that money on one player seems like a bad misjudgment.
It’s churlish to peck away at Bryn Cunningham’s achievement in luring the then 24-year old Marcell Coetzee to Ravenhill, because it looked like he had pulled a rabbit from his hat when the signing was announced in February 2016. Coetzee had been injured on the 8 August 2015 playing for the Boks against Argentina in the pre-RWC Rugby Championship; Springbok medical staff identified it as a “bad contusion to the quad” rather than torn ligaments, but eight months later, having missed RWC15 with the injury and then having played three months of holiday rugby for the Honda Heat between November and January, he tore his ACL in April 2016 playing for the Sharks against the Lions in Super Rugby. Coetzee eventually debuted for Ulster during the 2017 Six Nations, but re-injured his knee in just his fourth game for the province, a facile 68-21 win over Zebre in March 2017. After a 13-carry opening day salvo against the Cheetahs on the first day of the 2017-18 season, the South African was a week-to-week cry-off for the next four games, before a return to his surgeon in South Africa confirmed the worst: another season written off due to surgery and rehabilitation.
Ulster had signed fellow Springbok backrow Arno Botha in January of last year – as a supplement to, rather than replacement for, Coetzee – but he too picked up an injury before making it to the province. This time, twice shy, the provincial brass called off the move. Jean Deysel was called in as a bit of a panic-buy from his loan spell at Munster; Rassie Erasmus had brought him there on a three-month deal from the Sharks, putatively as cover for injured lock Jean Kleyn. With the clock running down and the market thinning out by the time Ulster cut the cord on the Botha deal, Deysel was in the country at the right time. However, the 4-times capped Springbok flanker has a lot of miles on the clock and missed all of November and December due to a recurrence of a shoulder injury, then failed to make it back into the side for their key January European Cup games on his return. The last of the recruits, tighthead Schalk van der Merwe, is struggling to make any sort of impact and looks a long way out of his comfort zone.
In the bluntest, least sympathetic terms, Coetzee has been an injury disaster, Botha a non-starter, Deysel a disappointment and van der Merwe a non-event. Piutau has occasionally looked distracted and demotivated, and it’s not unrealistic to suggest that he’s counting down the days.
From Misfortune to Miasma
The Mole doesn’t blame Bryn Cunningham for making [or calling off] any of those signings … with the exception of Schalk van der Merwe, whose CV looked very patchy. Getting Coetzee to opt for Ravenhill was a tremendously impressive feat from the Operations Director: there must have been a very long list of clubs who would have liked to have him on the books. While there’s some evidence pointing to iffy due diligence – Coetzee’s most recent surgery is a rehash of his first ACL surgery, i.e. the injury dating back to before he signed with Ulster, not the medial ligament injury he picked up whilst playing for the province in March of last year – I think on the balance of probabilities it’s just bad fortune to which the organisation and their supporters have to resign themselves. And that’s definitely the case with Botha. It was a much wiser decision to call off that deal than let it play out.
Piutau’s form has been a little haphazard – and Deysel has disappointed – but viewing the situation from a hundred miles south, it’s easier to be pragmatic about the difficulty of playing your best rugby in a malfunctioning team and an unhappy camp. It looks like they have simply been caught up in the malaise affecting the province.
And the problem is a classic malaise: vague and debilitating with no obvious remedy.
And when you can’t establish the specifics of what’s going wrong, how can you go about making things right? It has become apparent since Kiss’ resignation that CEO Shane Logan has become the next target of Ulster’s unhappy fans, both amateur and professional. Is he a scapegoat for Ulster’s problems? The Mole is cognisant that he’s not necessarily to blame for everything that has gone wrong.
However, the difference between accountability and blame, especially in a corporate structure, is important to recognise. Logan may not be at fault for individual actions or decisions, but he is accountable for the situation in which Ulster Rugby currently find themselves, i.e. the aggregation of these actions and decisions. In Logan’s position, there’s an obligation and a responsibility to give an explanation [or reason] for the organisation’s actions and conduct. That’s part of his job. That’s nothing to do with his background, or his personality, or the day-to-day mood in the building. It’s just his job.
Ulster is no different that any other professional sporting in the ongoing trend of a vocal proportion of their fans personalising criticism, even though it’s a wholly negative act. Some of the criticism aimed at Logan has been obviously unfair – just as in Les Kiss’s case – and some has been grounded in evidence. The petard with which he is currently being hoisted is own: his voiced ambition that Ulster be the best club rugby side in the world:
“Ulster Rugby aims to make Ulster the best rugby region in the world bar none. We want to be better than any region in Ireland ― Leinster and Munster have perhaps moved ahead of us recently ― in GB and in Europe, which is the stage on which we play. Furthermore, we want to be better than our rivals in the Super 15, namely Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.”
Logan was appointed in November 2009 and arrived into the job in January 2010. His predecessor Michael Reid had announced his resignation in September 2009 as the 2009-10 season kicked off, with a sense of timing that is best described as unhelpful. Reid was a Methody old boy who moved from a position in banking to take on the Chief Executive role Ulster at the dawn of the professional era, and had been in charge for twelve years before his surprise departure.Logan arrived with a background of significant managerial roles: general manager of the famous Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, and Head of Coca Cola in Central Russia. While David Humphreys was the key man in delivering signings like Ryan Pienaar, Johan Muller and John Afoa, Logan delivered an entire stadium. Sure, the Queen paid for a good portion of it, but she’s also paying a similar portion for the redevelopment of Windsor Park and Casement Park, and the delivery of those projects has been endlessly more problematic than that of Ravenhill. And, relative to their provincial neighbours – Leinster in the rented and antiquated RDS, Connacht in a windswept greyhound track and Munster in continuing and very significant debt due to their over-reach in the redevelopment of Thomond Park – Ulster are sitting very pretty when it comes to home affairs.
However, on other fronts he has clearly been less successful, and eight years after his appointment, Ulster are clearly slipping further backwards from their 2011-13 on-field peak.
There has been very obvious turmoil at every position below the CEO for a number of years: Humphrey’s early and unexpected departure; Anscombe shown the door before a thorough search had been conducted for his successor; Les Kiss half-in, half-out for a year and then saddled with inherited sidekicks; Joe Barakat leaving the door swinging behind him midway through the season to take up another job; Doak and Clarke lame-ducking their way through the second half of the 2016-17 season in an acrimonious camp; Kiss falling on his sword in early 2018; and now Jono Gibbes levering himself out of a disaster zone.
Logan hasn’t presided over a trophy-winning team, and seems to have run out of good will. With Ulster’s results on the pitch regressing, the track-suited class in tumult and off-pitch matters bringing the organisation to the verge of disrepute, his position seems – to this Mole – untenable.
The Purge Surge?
When provincial coaches have run their course [or run out of road] in recent years, be it Bradley at Connacht, McGahan at Munster or O’Connor at Leinster, there has been a noticeable feeling of relief amongst supporters of the ‘afflicted’ province. The fans are happy to have tossed their Jonah overboard and are already looking forward to warming their tummies with grog in the tropics. Things can only get better!
The Mole doesn’t get that impression with Ulster. Kiss may not have had the Northerners letting out the reefs and unfurling the stuns’ls, but he has too much credit in the international rugby bank [probably Old Mutual Wealth, the most apt sponsor there has ever been in sport] to be judged by The Mole as anything worse than a decent enough coach doing a bad job. It happens – Frank Hadden with Scotland, Gareth Jenkins with Wales and, most recently, Jim Mallinder with Northampton. And, as with all those teams, there are deeper problems in Ulster than a head coach’s sub-par production.
The outstanding Tommy Bowe announced his retirement recently. Charlie Piutau is on his way to Bristol next season. Jared Payne hasn’t played a game of rugby since July and was de-registered from Ulster’s EPCR squad list due to his ongoing symptoms related to migraine. The long-serving Andrew Trimble turns 34 this year and is definitely in the twilight of a great career. Without venturing into the quagmire that is a very serious criminal trial, I’ll confine my comments to the professional futures of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding; they are obviously in very serious doubt.
It was just announced on Friday that Jono Gibbes will be leaving at the end of the season, another hole below the waterline for a ship already listing. Given the quality of players leaving, the uncertainty over the future of a number of others, a half-functioning academy and a depleted and obviously agitated management staff, it’s not obscenely pessimistic to suggest that the worst has yet to come for Ulster. That’s a grim thought for fans of the province, and indeed for Irish rugby fans in general.