End of an Era

No, not the Fez era (that’s coming soon) or the end of the pooh-pooh-ing of concussion (also coming soon), but the Humph era at Ulster. Its been 22 years since Humph was not at Ulster (presumably discounting his time at Oxford and Lahn Oirish) and its reasonable to say no man currently in Irish rugby is as readily identified with his province – Eric Elwood would have been, Axel might if he stays around Munster and Leo Cullen is Leinster’s contender.

Humphreys retired from playing in 2008 and immediately moved upstairs to an operational role, progressing to DoR in 2009 – he was responsible for both the bringing in and the letting go of Brian McLaughlin, the influx of gilded Saffers and the hiring of Mark Anscombe. In terms of on-pitch results, the progression (admittedly from a very low base) has been steady and clear:

  • 2008/09: HEC: 3rd in pool behind Quins, Stade (2 wins). Magners: 8th (out of 10)
  • 2009/10: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Stade (4 wins). Magners: 8th (out of 10)
  • 2010/11: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Biarritz (5 wins including first in England), QF defeat away to Northampton. Magners: 3rd (out of 12), SF defeat away to Leinster
  • 2011/12: HEC: 2nd in pool behind Clermont ahead of Leicester (4 wins), QF win away to Munster, SF win vs Embra, F defeat to Leinster. Pro12: 6th
  • 2012/13: HEC: 1st in pool ahead of Northampton, Castres (5 wins including first in France), QF defeat away to Globo Gym. Pro12: 1st, SF home win vs Scarlets, F defeat to Leinster in RDS
  • 2013/14: HEC: 1st in pool ahead of Leicester, Montpellier (6 wins), QF defeat at home to Sarries. Pro12: 4th, SF defeat away to Leinster

So in Europe, first wins on English and French soil, four successive knockout appearances, two pool wins, first home knockout game, and first final – lots of successes. Domestically, going from also-rans to consistent contenders – not as spectacular a progression, but progress all the same. Still, no cigar – Ulster’s aching for silverware has yet to be sated, and that, ultimately, will be seen as a failure – though not all Humph’s, but the buck does stop somewhere, and since he gets lots of the credit for the upturn, he needs to take some responsibility for not getting to where he wanted to be.

Its clear as well that the current stage of Ulster’s progress is ending – big names like John Afoa and Johann Muller have moved on, and they have not been replaced in a like-for-like fashion. Ulster have built around them,bedded in an outstanding generation of youngsters (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy, Olding) and blended them well with developing players who have been around for all of Humph’s tenure (Henry, Cave, Besty, Court, Tuohy), returning Ulstermen (Bowe, Wilson) and some high-class project players.

The next stage will involve the passing on of the baton from foreigners to Ulstermen (and lets not get all Farmer Farrelly on this – Ulster’s home-grown players are at least as influential and have been for a while) while staying competitive. Its not going to be easy, particularly given the state of the front five and the size of the chequebooks being waved around in France. If Humph had ideas of leaving at some point, now might be a good time relative to on-pitch matters.

There is also the not inconsiderable issue of the future of the head coach – the Sword of Damocles (© Gerry) appears to be hanging over Anscombe’s head. Ulster currently run a bicameral coaching system with Humph as DoR and Anscombe taking training – would this structure be a disincentive to a big name head coach (if indeed, such an animal would be tempted by Ulster in the first place)? Perhaps Humph’s role would have been diminshed in the near future anyway.

Off-field, Ulster have developed into a commercial juggernaut. Ravenhill is no more, and is instead the Kingspan Stadium (at least they have sold the naming rights to a long-standing supporter of the team), with some extra pounds in the coffers and an increased capacity by 50%, with new, modern facilities. Happily, the atmosphere has not suffered – many observers (even by English ones used to the razor-sharp atmosphere at Allianz Park and Irish ones used to the tears at Thomond) rated the atmosphere for the Saracens game as the best of the season just past. Season ticket sales have ballooned, and their marketing has improved from helping fans to “save time” (actually) to becoming a partner in the Ulster/Kingspan experience – its up to the standard of Leinster and Munster – finally.

Again, Humph presided over these changes, if less directly for the off-field matters – and Ulster are now where they want to be. Seems he received an offer that turned his head from Glaws and he decided he had taken Ulster as far as he could, and the time was right to move on. He certainly wasn’t pushed – that is for sure. As it stands, Ulster and Irish rugby owes a great debt of gratitude to one of its great sons, and we can only hope he’ll be back – he’d certainly make a good fist of David Nucifora’s role, if it turns into what its envisioned to.

Ulster are in an immeasurably better place than when he went upstairs – the new era starts now and the bedrock is firm. As George Harrison said, sunrise doesn’t last all morning. Best of luck, Humph.

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36 Comments

  1. Barry

     /  June 11, 2014

    bicameral! You boys have been educated! (at some point)

  2. I expect our achievements to be lesser next year, but not necessarily because DH is leaving, more because we missed our chance at silverware with the current group of players and now it is that weird word, transition.

    Genuinely I believed we had a shot at each of the two pots this year, but all our chances fell to pieces on that day of great atmosphere (by the way, Saracens’ blazers wrote a letter to Ulster complaining about the crowd following the fixture, which went down like a sh1t smoothie, as you can imagine). Obviously we were knocked out of the HEC, but also the injuries sustained left us paper thin for the remaining games and fighting, in vain, uphill.

    On DH – as an aside, if he’s been at Ulster for 22 years then I’ve never left the province myself, there’s journalistic licence and there’s flat-out ignoring reality – it is clearly a big loss, as he takes huge credit for dragging us out of the doldrums. It’s impossible to know how it will all play out, but I want to be optimistic. If we get someone good in maybe we won’t skip a step? Certainly I think Ulster is a train on the rails now, compared with the debacle of six/seven years ago, and – crisis as opportunity – this could be the perfect time for someone to come in with some fresh ideas. I’d like to think the now-unfulfilled role* is a very attractive one, and we can go from strength to strength. However, it’s not that easy. Interesting times.

    *as you’ve said yourselves, Anscombe’s positions is uncertain and there may even be questions about how exactly to divide the work, and whether they want something different from the current coach/DoR split.

    • You aren’t serious – they complained? Are wooden fake atmospheres what we want? That’s incredible

      • Can’t cite my source but it’s one I’d consider ironclad. Apparently they thought the atmosphere was unseemly. This from the club that had the singing ‘fat lady’.

        • Lop12

           /  June 11, 2014

          I doubt they will get a friendlier welcome in Thomond next season !!

          What a shower of bell ends.

        • Some Connacht fans at the HEC game at the Allianz were less than impressed with the Saracens fans, and this is the same crowd that need a piped-music club song when Munster come to town. You have to hand it to the Plastic Fantastic RFC, they’re not short of neck.

        • Yer Man

           /  June 11, 2014

          Seriously?

          Sarries confused by the concept of spectators who make noise?
          Don’t ever let them see a cow, they’d be shocked to find out where milk comes from.

      • Saracens really are big on how to win friends & influence people, aren’t they? Christ/

        So tone deaf. Much ego. Very dickish. Wow.

        • Paddy o

           /  June 11, 2014

          This could be inaccurate but I have vague memories of a Saracens half time crossbar challenge for a quarter of a million scoobies. The randomer supporter took off his shoes and nailed the kick from about 40 yards. Got quite funny when you saw the faces of the guys handing over the big fake cheque….it was like…..what are these jive turkeys (serfs?) doing winning the impossible challenge we have set in an attempt to get bums on seats? Can we get out of this?! Perhaps I’m mixing this up a bit with Will Ferrel as jackie moon in the movie semi-pro but i don’t think it is actually that far away from the reality. Well for them!

          • bedlam9999

             /  June 12, 2014

            i remember that,
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ABA2cayfzU&feature=kp
            think they even tried to do him out of his money cos he didnt dropkick it

          • You’re not at all inaccurate. The “randomer”, unbeknownst to Sarries, was a fullback for a top drawer amateur side. He told the MC he’d buy all the Sarries dancing girls a posh dinner if he won, kicked off his shoes, and nailed it in his sock feet from miles out. It was just as you remember it, He kept his promise about dinner too.

        • Paddy o

           /  June 11, 2014

          Had a look on line and they’ve done it more than once in fairness to them, but this still makes pretty funny watching….

          http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/rugby-fan-wins-250000-after-431881

          http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=r8d5Le69gII

          Tune in to 5:45 on the second video and spot the difference. 🙂

          • paddypower

             /  June 12, 2014

            That’s what cracked me up about it bedlam, they were trying to help their ‘good face’ from a PR side of things but it ended up a bit of a PR disaster. How the buck do you make giving a quarter of a million away to a supporter into bad publicity?! Glad to hear the lad got the money in the finish up. Hopefully the new European cup will follow a similar script!

  3. connachtexile

     /  June 11, 2014

    “he’d certainly make a good fist of David Nucifora’s role, if it turns into what its envisioned to” – Thank You I’ve being saying this for ages to anyone who will listen. He’s clearly got the brains for it and the ruthless streak.

    • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

       /  June 11, 2014

      Not only do I agree but I think this may be at the heart of his decision. DH is an ambitious, home-grown talent and he has to be a little disillusioned by the almost exclusive focus on overseas recruitment for the top positions within Irish rugby. I guess the question is whether this move veers more towards a frustrated two fingers to the blazers or a ‘move out to move up’ acceptance of current reality..

      • Yer Man

         /  June 11, 2014

        Maybe deHumph feels (or has been told) that he needs to broaden his CV before being seriously considered for a role such as that?

      • Lop12

         /  June 12, 2014

        Well, in three of ther provinces at least. And Im pretty sure it was presented that he was the driving force behind replaing McLaughlin with a foreigner!

  4. Leinsterlion

     /  June 11, 2014

    Doesnt every province run a ‘bicameral’ system to one degree or another?

    • If you mean a Director of Rugby who does no coaching, then no, Ulster are on their own in that regard.

  5. Bective Boy

     /  June 11, 2014

    Amusing to read the outrage at the suggestion that Ravenhill crowds may be less than charming, hardly a surprise to hear those complaints, T Brennan wouldn’t be shocked for starters

    • Don Alfonso

       /  June 11, 2014

      T. Brennan? You mean Trevor Brennan, who punched an Ulster fan in the crowd in Stade Ernest Wallon in Toulouse when they brutally mocked his pub for being a bit wick?

      I’m sure if he visited Ravenhill – sorry, Kingspan – now, he’d be in floods of hysterical tears, fists flying all round him, like the delicate, fisticuffs-prone flower he is.

  6. Mike

     /  June 11, 2014

    DH leaving aside, I think the downturn in Ulsters situation is a bit overplayed. On a playing basis, Muller and Court were past their prime and Afoa’s heart wasn’t really in it anymore. As sad as it is to see them leave, its probably for the best.

    On the flip side to them leaving, Herbst is a very promising player, vd Merwe is a great player (on playing terms possibly better then Muller), Olding is back and Bowe gets a proper pre-season.

    Off the pitch, everything has been as good as its ever been.

    As for Humph, who knows. I think we all just assumed that he was here for life, and maybe the paymasters at Ulster started taking him for granted. From a career point of view taking the Gloucester job is a smart move as they are massive underachievers with big ambitions and it will put him on the radar internationally – somewhere he probably wants to end up.

    • You know, this is a really good point – he’s unlikely to be able to do worse than this season, and with Afoa coming in (and hopefully happier) and Hook for Burns a good trade, he’s a better squad.

      Thing is though, its also a tougher job in that you don’t have a central template guiding recruitment / player appearance. On your own a bit – will tell us more about him perhaps than Ulster did.

      • Mike

         /  June 11, 2014

        The thing with Gloucester is that they have always had good players and for the most part good coaches. Their problem seems deeper than recruitment. Their culture seems all wrong.

        If Humph can get that sorted, they can go quite far very quickly. But its a big if.

    • By the end it wasn’t just his heart that wasn’t in it – no part of him was in the country. He should be much happier that he’s 2% closer to Auckland…oh, and a whole heap richer.

      I agree that Muller was past his best but still a fine player and a great leader. Court was on the cusp of losing the No1 jersey to Callum Black anyway but it would have been nice to keep for another season. But giving him a three year contract would have been madness so good luck to London Irish with that one.

      As for Sarries, I didn’t think my loathing for them could get any worse. How wrong I was.

  7. Excrement Stirring Device

     /  June 11, 2014

    I hear Ed Griffiths the Sarries CEO thinks the inhabitants of Limerick are a bunch of turnip eating inbreds, please spread this around so he can get some real atmosphere to welcome his side 🙂

    • EMC

       /  June 11, 2014

      Well they ARE a bunch of turnip eating inbreds. In fact I’d argue that they are THE bunch of turnip eating inbreds. *sniff* makes you proud

    • osheaf01

       /  June 12, 2014

      I don’t think there is any question they will be getting a Warm Welcome anyway. They’re a bit like Chelsea – no class, no tradition, horrible players, horrible fans – nouveaux riches squared.

  8. Patrick O'Riordan

     /  June 11, 2014

    I think DHump’s role was quite similar to the General Manager position in US Pro sports. The GM is responsible for recruitment, the player roster and the hiring and firing of coaching staff.

    Certainly DHump was meant to spend a lot of time on recruitment including meeting prospects face to face and it is difficult to think of any turkeys on his watch.

    I don’t know how the other provinces divide up this responsibility. Doing a decent job of recruitment is meant to take up a lot of time and this time may be short supply for the track suit wearing staff.

    • seiko

       /  June 13, 2014

      It seems to be between the Head Coach & the CEO for the other three provinces. I think Ulster differs in that their CEO didn’t come from a rugby backround, while Dawson, Fitzgerald both have strong rugby pedigrees. Connacht brought in Sears who didn’t last. I seem to recall Rua Topoki being initially sounded out by Paul O’Connell & ROG on a Lions tour in 2005, so I’d imagine that a lot of the recrutment is done this way. Another example is Nacewa recommending Joe Schmidt to Leinster (and at the same time, Schmidt who was the assistant coach, was encouraging Nacewa to go to Clermont.

  9. Munstermicko

     /  June 12, 2014

    “I hear Ed Griffiths the Sarries CEO thinks the inhabitants of Limerick are a bunch of turnip eating inbreds, please spread this around so he can get some real atmosphere to welcome his side”

    We eat cabbage as well.

  10. Mister Pops

     /  June 15, 2014

    Long time reader, first time poster.

    I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll burn a wee candle for Gloucester next year. They’re not a great team, but as Mister Whiffofchordite pointed out, neither were Ulster when he took charge.

    I like to think Humphreys is doing this just to prove how good he is.

    • O’Reilly called Ulster a “shambles” and Besty called the situation “concerning” – what is going on anyone?

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