It is with interest that we have read about and watched the shenanigans in Ulster of late – Brian McLaughlin is being binned after three largely succesful years as head coach – sorry, he is “being offered long-term stability” as, er, assistant to Gary Longwell in the coaching staff. The full sordid affair is laid bare in this cringe-inducing press conference:
Humph is being rightly panned for the ramshackle nature of the announcement, which stands in great contrast to the majority of his work as director of rugby at Ravenhill. However, this Ulster fan sees some method in the apparent madness – since 2007, Ulster have been on a journey which they hope will culminate in bringing the HEC back to Belfast – I’m sure no-one needs reminded that’s where it first landed on Irish shores – and they need a boost to get there.
Let’s start this tale in October 2006 – Ulster are reigning Celtic League champions, and have opened their Heineken Cup campaign with a 30-3 stuffing of Toulouse. The HEC itself is enjoying a well-sodden winter in Limerick and Ulster have genuine ambitions of adding it to the Celtic League trophy come May.
Fast forward 12 months later – Ulster have only won one more HEC game, endured a disappointing finish to the CL and have lost coach Mark McCall after being thumped by Gloucester at Former Fortress Ravenhill. By Christmas, they are bottom of the CL and at their lowest ebb. The province that swept all before them in the 1980s were now worse than Connacht. It was Time Zero.
Into this mess walked Matty Williams, a man whose perfect teeth and blow-dried hair couldn’t fail to make a difference. The players were wracked by failure and crushed under the pressure of trying to live up to Munster. Matty came in, with his familiar sunny disposition – a bit of “come on lads, you aren’t that bad, have some fun” got Ulster stabilised. The playing staff were decimated by the summer exodus in 2008, but Williams managed to hold on to Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble and Rory Best – the Ulstermen who, along with young Stephen Ferris, would constitute the core of the side and give some much-needed continuity.
Williams’ next season was fairly underwhelming, but it was clear that Ulster seemed to have got the ship moving in the right direction – Matty’s job was essentially done. There was genuine shock when he got the boot for the Humph/Longwell/Doak/McLaughlin axis, but it was exactly what Ulster needed – a structure was put in place that would work to build the club off the pitch and in the Academy, and it was being run by a cult hero. The identity of the provincial set-up was now firmly one of Ulster, with the management, the coaching staff and the backbone of the team all local, and driven by the memory of 1999.
Upgrade work at Ravenhill, better (albeit, not good) marketing efforts to attract a wider fan base, using the available financial muscle and squad upgrades were Humph’s job. Nurturing a crop of highly talented youngsters was Longwell and Doak’s job; and picking the team and winning games was McLaughlin’s. But it was fairly clear where the power lay – and he was upstairs watching his brother in the 10 shirt.
Every season under McLaughlin, Ulster have improved on the pitch. In his first HEC, they won in England (when Andrew Trimble out-Bathed Bath) and but for playing Stade a day late in front of nobody may have picked up the extra point they needed to sneak into the knockout stages. The next year, they beat Biarritz, did the double over Oooooooooooooooohh Bath, and made the quarter-finals for the first time since they won the thing. A regret-laden defeat to Northampton was the perfect preparation for this year.
Until the absolutely stinking draw was made that is – Clermont and Leicester would be the teams Ulster would have to beat. No-one had much confidence in their ability to make it through, but two of the most memorable performances by an Irish province in Europe (and that’s saying something) were clocked up en route to another quarter-fnal passage.
Off the pitch, progress was also made – Humph secured development funding from the Northern Assembly for Ravenhill, and recruitment has been stellar – Muller, Wannenbosh and Pienaar came last summer and gave the team beef and intelligence. John Afoa is this years marquee signing and is phenomenally good. Longwell and Doak have sent up some excellent players, with Spence, McAllister, Paul Marshall and Gilroy already in the first team, and Luke Marshall, Gaston, Jackson and Henderson sniffing the bench.
It’s this confluence which may have forced Humph’s hand on McLaughlin. This season, Ulster were dire until after the RWC. The training was apparently rudimentary and the patterns listless until the core of the team returned from New Zealand. McLaughlin, without his lieutenants, was an uninspring leader – fans were unhappy and feared the start of the HEC.
The feeling at Ravenhill seems to be that McLaughlin was flattered by Saffa experience and class, and young Irish fearlessness and leadership. The burning desire to win trophies may have left the amiable McLaughlin odd man out. While being Pure Ulster was a virtue back in 2009, now the need is for something different – something of the proven class that a real top-class coach can bring and take a team to the next level, like Joe Schmidt in Leinster for example.
Which is the crux of the matter. As Brian Clough famously said about Alex Ferguson:
“He hasn’t got two of what I have got, and I’m not talking about balls”
Ulster have one HEC, and it has an asterisk – there were no Boshiership teams competing in 1999. Leinster and Munster have two, and infinititely more pedigree.
Ulster can just about live with Leinster winning HECs, but Munster is another thing. To be blunt about it, Ulster Rugby, as an institution, has no respect for Munster Rugby. That’s why they can go down to Thomond Park and win, even in their darkest days in 2008. And it’s also why they are the most dangerous opponent Munster could have drawn in this years quarter-final. It was no co-incidence that the pressure of not being as succesful as Munster blew up the team of 2006.
Now, they want two of what Munster have. And they don’t see Brian McLaughlin as a coach holding the HEC. His methods are not perceived as being at the zenith of European rugby, and thats what Ulster want. Leinster got Schmidt in to take them to the next level, now it’s on Humph to get his man. He’ll want a Vern Cotter, or maybe a Fabien Galthie – someone who can grab this undoubtedly talented team and get two of what Deccie has.
Humph is piling the pressure on himself, but he won’t mind that one bit. Plus, as he knows, it’s better than Radge and Axel piling it on.