Ulster Says … All Round to Humph’s for some Plotting!

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.

Team in focus: Ulster

Last season: A. Ulster had a fantastic season, their best since Humph retired – some shrewd Saffa recruitment and up-and-coming young talent led Ulster through their HEC pool, and, with a little more belief, the Saints were there for the taking. Third place in the ML secured a playoff, but an(other) inevitable defeat to Leinster ensued it ended potless in Ravenhill.

So far this year: If last year was A, this season has been C- so far. They didn’t have many players in NZ, but the ones they did have were crucial – the spine of the team (2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 14 including captain, vice-captain and on-field lieutenants) were gone. The forwards have been too lightweight to get ball for the talented backs and old faultlines have re-appeared – e.g. iHumph’s salloon door tackling.

Prospects: The shocking HEC draw has concentrated minds in Ravenhill – there is no room for error, and they must hit the ground running and beat the in-form and intimidating Clermont Auvergne next week followed by a tilt at the Tigers the week after.

The pressure seems to be telling a little and Ulster are struggling to get motoring. The hope was that the younger players would put some pressure on the established names, and that the RWC returnees would be coming back into a fight for the shirt. That hasn’t happened, and the string of losses is worrying.

On the personnel front, the question marks are mainly around whether the players who did well last year can step up. Paddy McAlister looks a real prospect at loose-head – he’s physical and aggressive and certainly looks more effective than Tom Court. If McLaughlin throws him in against the (very) big guns of Clermont and Leicester, it will be very interesting. Opposite him, John Afoa on the tight-head side can’t come in soon enough – Court’s scrummaging has always been passable at best, and it is frankly abominable on the tight side. Rory Best isn’t being shifted, but young Niall Annett has captained every age group he has played in, and will be given a taste of Rabo action this year – one to watch in 2015.

Further back, Ulster will want big seasons from Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry. Tuohy is a great ball carrier and when on form, seems to have all the tools to be an international player. The problem is that, particularly this season, his form has been up and down. The return of Muller alongside him (and Best) should help him concentrate on his own game.

The Ulster back-row is in a bit of flux. You want your back-row to be well-balanced and to have a tackler, a carrier and a line-out merchant. Fez is all 3 really, Pedrie Wannenburg is a carrier and Chris Henry is, well … nothing, really. For Henry to continue his progression, he needs to make a shirt and a role his own. He is probably best-suited to 6, but the imposing frame of Fez is blocking him in the big games (assuming he is fit). At 8, he is behind agricultural Bok bosher Wannenburg, who might be fairly one-dimensional, but he gets across the gainline and has a happy knack of picking up tries. Which leaves 7, where Willie Falloon is a much better, albeit inconsistent, fit. Henry is in danger of being left behind, but he has potential and is a good leader – it’s a huge season for him. The afore-mentioned Falloon is a classic openside and Ulster look much better balanced with him in the side. He is a younger man and has yet to produce consistently, but if he gets form and starts, he balances the team much better. Which leaves Henry on the bench…

Pienaar and iHumph offer Ulster a balanced and exciting halfback pairing. The idea of a play-making scummie is still a bit odd here, and it gives Ulster the ability to play it either way. Pienaar’s game management and kicking is top class, and it allows the luxury of Humphreys silky skills and woollen defence at 10. Paul Marshall on the bench offers snappy service and a fast break as the game opens up. Also, look out for a fascinating battle between Paddy Jackson and James McKinney for the Young Outhalf Prospect Cup. At centre, the current incumbents are Nevin Spence and Paddy Wallace, with Luke Marshall and Darren Cave backing up. The competition should bring the best out of them all, and probably usher in Paddy Wallace’s swansong. In Cordite Villlas, we hope to see Spence in a green shirt very soon.

Out wide, it seems strange that its less than 2 years since Timmy Naguca, Mark McCrea and Clinton Shifcofske were trundling around Mount Merrion wasting good ball. Trimble and Danielli are genuinely HEC class, and youngsters Craig Gilroy and Conor Gaston will hope for lots of gametime. Adam D’Arcy is a fantastic broken field runner, but it’s all a bit pointless given he can’t actually pass the ball. Ageing Saffa boot merchant Stefan Terblanche has been brought in to cover for the unfortunate Jared Payne, and will actually contribute – Ulster do not have a safe as houses full-back a la Bob Kearney in the squad.

Ulster got an absolute stinker of a HEC draw this year – just when they needed something benign (e.g. Biarritz) to establish themselves as a quarter-final side, out popped the worst conceivable pool – Leicester and Clermont. To be fair, neither of those two would have been happy to see Ulster – Leicester have had some very bad days in Ravenhill, and Clermont, despite being among the three best sides in Europe for the last 4 years, have seen their ambitions founder on Irish soil.

Nineteen points will generally get you close to a wild card for the knock-out stages, and it’s a simple formula – 4 wins and 3 bonus points. Ulster have to let tie-breaking criteria think of themselves, and hope perhaps that Clermont do a Perpignan and get a result in Welford Road. They will aim for a double over Aironi and two other home wins. As for bonus points, the most likely scenario for getting three is two try numbers from the Italians and one losing point in Leicester – nobody gets one in the Stade Marcel Michelin (except Munster and Leinster). It’s a tall order, but Ulster played the timing of their fixtures well last year, and its an easy argument to make that now is the time to be visiting Welford Road.

At home, it’s about getting into the top 4 – only Leinster stand out in the Rabo pack, and Ulster, Munster and the bigger Welsh sides are of a similar standard. Fourth place will do, but fifth wouldn’t be a disaster if some of the younger guns get useful and productive gametime.

Verdict: Despite all the optimism Egg Chaser can muster, it’s a huge ask to get out of this pool. We think they will come mighty close though. We forecast 18 points and a finish behind Clermont. ERC tie-breakers will decide if its them or Leicester who join Munster in pursuit of the AmlinVase. At ProDirect level, they won’t get a home semi-final, but will do enough to get an away one – the lack of Irish internationals will work in their favour in February and March. Unless of course Deccie goes for revolution not evolution… Nah, playoffs it is.