Well, that was a surprise wasn’t it? Deep in the midst of the Northern Hemisphere rugger silly season, where we had been trying to feign interest in Ooooooooooooooohh James Downey’s move to Glasgae, Ulster only went and sacked Anscombe! Yesterday was Anscombe’s first day back at the office, supervising training for the non-touring Ulstermen – basically Neil McComb and Mike McComish, who we assume were practicing thirty-metre passes – when he got the curly finger and was dispatched summarily. He had known nothing in advance.
Coming hot on the heels of Humph’s departure to Glaws, it seems obvious the events are related. But how?
- Ulster’s bicameral coaching structure, whereby the DoR, Humph, was responsible for only off-pitch matters with the head coach, Anscombe, taking training and picking the team, was effectively built around Humphreys and his departure meant what felt like a strong and suitable management structure now became pointless. Better to bite the bullet now than have a lame duck for a year
- A willing pawn no longer had his protector and was chopped at the first available opportunity. Humph’s Machiavellian control structures were no longer needed and have been swept away.
Ulster have moved to combine the roles and recruit a big beast accordingly – Les Kiss comes in on an interim basis with his funky specs and choke tackles and will “assist” Neil Doak and Jonny Bell in coaching and picking the side. Kissy has been Ireland’s defence coach since Deccie came in, building a strong system, and has lots of respect in the game. He also had a rather underwhelming spell as
shunting-the-ball-from-side-to-side attack coach for a while – but the less said about that the better. He hasn’t had a head coaching role before and it’s clearly a temporary, if interesting, solution imposed from D4. One wonders if this bears the fingerprints of Nucifora.
Unlike Humph (and McLaughlin), Anscombe will be unlamented by Ulster fans. The view was Humph had replaced one not-great coach with another, and that Anscombe was a yes-man who was out of his depth and who struggled with bench usage in key games, repeatedly falling short. While Ulster progressed in his time, they never added enough to their game to win a trophy, and their strike rate in opposition 22 has become increasingly woeful. They just kept falling short in the same manner in a number of big games.
Ulster have felt well-run in recent years but the nature of recent changes has been rather slapdash (like indeed the infamous Humph-McLaughlin presser when Humph toe-curlingly insisted he wasn’t firing his coach) – the Ulster players in Argentina heard about Humph’s departure by text from Fez, and Rory Best has described the situation as “concerning”. Peter O’Reilly summed it up better, calling it a “shambles”.
So where to from here? The press have dusted off their over-optimistic requests from days of yore and have pinpointed Dingo Deans and Wayne Smith as Ulster’s preferred men – anyone who has been tracking recent provincial spend, or remembers the underwhelming feeling when Penney and Anscombe were appointed will perhaps expect something more left-field.
The key men in the appointment will not be Logan and Humph like last time, but Nucifora and Schmidt – the process followed and team appointed will be part of a broader Irish rugby-based vision than the narrow provincial focus of before, and late fifties Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coaches might not fit that template. Jeremy Davidson might, or Birch, or Mark McCall, or even Conor O’Shea or Geordan Murphy if they could be tempted home. Despite the promptings from Munsterfans.com, Michael Bradley and Eddie are unlikely to be in the mix.
Ulster’s appointment will be the first in the new ERCC world where Irish provinces will need to compete based on strong sustainable coaching structures and domestic talent – how it proceeds and who drives the bus will be very interesting.