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.

Your coaches … give them to me, now

Having looked backwards in some detail at the Munster and Ulster progress in the last few years, it seems logical to have a look forward, especially in the context of the vacant hot-seats in Belfast and Limerick Cork Limerick. Both provinces will be linked with the usual posse of out-of-work-for-ages supremos e.g. John Kirwan, unavailable pipe-dreams e.g. Conor O’Shea and Desperate Dans e.g. Eddie.

But which job would a man want if both were offered? In fact, how do both jobs stack up? Lets get down and dirty and take a 3 year horizon.

Squad (Re-)Building

Ulster: Ulster’s squad has some tidy Saffers, a couple of Irish superstars and a cadre of young and hungry Irish talent. The squad should be expected to remain pretty settled in the medium term, and should form a good base to work with.   Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson are coming back next season, which represents an endorsement of the province.  The major risk is the IRFU following through on the blame-the-foreigners act – Muller, Pienaar and Afoa would be virtually impossible to replace.  Delivering greater strength in depth is the first call of duty for a new coach; Ulster don’t have the calibre of reserves that Munster and Leinster can call upon.

Munster: A long to-do list beckons, in spite of the work done by McGahan in the last year. Has Rog three years left? Unlikely, even if he was that way inclined (which we doubt). How does one manage the transition from one of the greatest Irish fly halves in history to … er … Ian Keatley? Tough. First job on the list is pruning a bloated squad – the likes of Duncan Williams, Billy Holland and Scott Deasy are among the likely candidates for the chop / N18 to Galway.

Expectation Levels:

Ulster: High, but realistic. Ulster will demand some silverware in 3 years – a Rabo in year 1 or 2 followed by a HEC is the likely target. After two successive quarter-finals, a move into the Munster/Leinster league of being perennial knock-out stage merchants is the next step, as well as earning a home QF.

Munster: Sky-high, and not always realistic. Such is the level of success attained by the Liginds that the Munster faithful demand a HEC quarter-final and a challenge for the Rabo every year as a bare minimum.  Even if the new coach achieves that, they will not be considered a success without a HEC. We could poke fun by talking about honesty of effort and backs to the wall, but that guff belongs to Farrelly – it’s achievements that count in Thomond Park.

Set-up and Coaching:

Ulster: Still training at Newforge, and awaiting the sort of dedicated training centre and professional backup that Munster and Leinster enjoy at UL and UCD. The irony of Ireland’s leading sports science research mostly coming from Ulster (largely due to the GAA) is not lost on Humph etc. Ulster’s support staff and specialist coaches need beefing up, although a new coach may bring some of those.

Munster: Top facilities at UL, but half the squad is based in Cork – the bi-location is not ideal. The real problem for a prospective coach is, ironically given its where Munster have improved so markedly this season, the forwards coach (assuming here Axel is not the new head coach). Any new coach will have to accept Axel as forwards coach whether they want him or not – that said, he appears fit for purpose.

External Influence:

Ulster: Humph is a hands-on kind of guy, but one suspects that once the new coach and his team are in place, they will be left to it. Brian McLaughlin was left alone until Humph knew he was being replaced. The Ravenhill faithful will support the new coach unconditionally, for the first year at least, given he has the Humph seal of approval. There will be pressure to succeed, but there will not be interference. The rugby media in Ulster are generally rather tame, and without a record of success in a while, everything is still taken as a bonus.

Munster: Axel is regarded as the man in waiting by the suits and the fans (why do you think Ludd was only offered a 1 year deal?) – if things go badly, sections of the crowd will be looking for the coach’s head, and for Axel to step in. Is a top-name coach going to be interested in coming in for a couple of years, when he knows he’ll be moved on after that?  Now try transitioning Radge out of the team – the fans will only be on one side. The media can be fawning, but it’s conditional – if the Liginds like you, you’re in, otherwise, you’re out.

Conclusion:

It’s pretty obvious which job is more appealing to a big name coach, and it’s not the Munster one. In fact, it’s arguable that there are no positives for a non-Munster coach going in (other than the prestige of managing a great franchise), and that anyone with sense wouldn’t touch the job with a bargepole. That being as it is, the Munster hierarchy may be best off appointing Axel a year before they intended to and give him the best backs coach and coaching team they can get. Is it true Eddie is free (don’t snigger, he is an excellent technical backs coach)?

Up in Ulster, the possiblities are myriad – once you meet Humph’s criteria. One suspects Humph will want a young and hungry coach who will bring a new approach and ambition to the squad, like Joe Schmidt at Leinster. A big name like Wayne Smith may bring too much pressure and the risk of going off-message – better to get someone who Humph can trust and who will understand the task at hand. Someone like, say, Matt Sexton? As a former hooker, Sexton could take the forwards and bring in an experienced backs coach to help out. Someone like Eddie (we told you to stop sniggering).

Follow the Money, Jimmy

As a brief follow-up to our Ulster piece earlier in the week, we thought we would add one point, and address one raised several times in follow-ups.

Addition: the Bob Paisley Rule

We here at Whiff of Cordite are followers of the Bob Paisley Rule – that is, change from a position of strength. Make your adjustments on your own terms and don’t let events overtake you (like when Bob Paisley jettisoned European Footballer of the Year Keggy Keegle for young Kenny Dalglish and improved his already all-conquering Liverpool side).
Humph has ticked this box at Ulster by recognising a potential weakness and addressing it pre-emptively. This stands in contrast to, say, Ludd at Munster. We’ll be posting on Ludd’s rather mixed legacy shortly, but he put off changing a successful Munster side until he was forced to i.e. after Toulon tore them a new one. His work since has been better, but he has never given the impression of having caught up with himself or being in control of the transition.

Follow-up: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

More than once after the Ulster piece, people brought up money – how were Ulster able to develop so quickly, and sign such superstars? The Rory McIlroy blank cheque rumour came up, as did talk of some “private funding” – both nonsense. When considering Ulster budget, there are some important points to note:
  • Time lag. Contracts, by their very nature, are backward looking. Thats why Conor Murray, until very recently, was on an Academy contract, and the man he was keeping on the bench, Tomas O’Leary, was on a central one worth multiples of Murray’s. Murray’s contract was based on potential, O’Leary’s on a Lions selection in 2009. Ulster’s team, if you exclude centrally contracted and overseas players, are, for the most part, young and have no great record of success. Thus, they are cheaper. For example, Dan Tuohy is probably on a fraction of Donncha’s wage, yet has been much more effective this season.
  • Central Contracts. This is a particularly muddy issue that is deliberately shrouded in mystery.  The IRFU acts as paymaster for a number of Irish international players, but the hows and why’s of who has one and who doesn’t are puzzling in the extreme.  Brian O’Driscoll has one, of course, and so does Paul O’Connell.  No surprise there.  But so does Paddy Wallace.  Denis Leamy, Munster’s reserve flanker, recently signed a new one, in a piece of news which surprised everyone.  Sean O’Brien doesn’t have one.  Neither does Eoin Reddan.  The extent to which the IRFU directly pay the players from the various provinces is shrouded in mystery.
  • Hard currency. Leinster and Munster players get paid in Euros, but Ulster players get paid in sterling. The Belfast equivalent of a Dublin €100k salary is about £60k, that is €70k at current market rates. Ulster players generally cost less due to being in the sterling zone.
  • Imports. Now let’s address the overseas players issue. It’s fair to say Ulster’s cadre of foreigners are of a higher class than Leinster or Munster – Ulster have 3 genuine stars and a former Springbok captain. But do they cost much more and give Ulster an unfair advantage? Let’s have a look:
    • John Afoa: Afoa is a world class tight head prop. World class tight heads props are worth their (considerable) weight in gold, and are remunerated accordingly, with something akin to danger money added on. Afoa would be on a comparable wage to Mike Ross and BJ Botha
    • Johann Muller: Muller is a World Cup winning former Springbok captain. But he was never a starter in his Bok career or even a regular on the bench, and he is in his early 30s. As such, Muller is not a top dollar player – its conceivable he is paid less than Nathan Hines was
    • Pedrie Wannenburg. Ulster’s back row bosher is a regular try scorer and his offloads in the HEC this year were both delicious and unexpected. But in reality, he is a bit of a journeyman, and the Boshiership is crammed with players like Wannenburg. Suffice to say, he’s not going to be shooting the lights out in the payslip department
    • Simon Danielli: Is rubbish
    • Ruan Pienaar & Jared Payne: Are top class. Here is where Ulster have an advantage. Leinster and Munster each have one genuine superstar – Nacewa and Howlett. Ulster have 1.5 – Pienaar is one of the best players in the world, but Payne is not there yet. Payne wasn’t considered to be on the All Black radar despite his exploits with Auckland. Still, he has the potential to be explosive and could yet work out to be Ulster’s Isa Nacewa

So, Ulster players are younger and are thus on less money, and get paid in sterling. On the flip side, they have Jared Payne against, say, Matt Berquist or Save Tokula.

We don’t think the overall wage bill is any higher than Leinster or Munster.

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.