Ulster have steadied the ship
Province back on an even keel going into new Pro12 campaign
At the launch of the Guinness Pro12 season at Park Royal, London, were (left to right) Munster’s Peter O’Mahony, Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip, Ulster’s Rory Best and Connacht’s John Muldoon. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
While losing a captain and a head coach may be regarded as unfortune, to lose a director of rugby like David Humphreys, such a part of the Ulster furniture and fabric, looks like carelessness. Nonetheless, Rory Best, their re-appointed captain, maintained the good ship Ulster is motoring much more smoothly than he could have considered possible.
Best said the appointment of Ireland defensive coach Les Kiss – conspicuous by his absence from both yesterday’s Guinness Pro12 launch in London and Ulster’s weekly media briefing in Ravenhill – as their interim head coach had bought the province time.
Bad situation“To lose your director of rugby and head coach within two weeks of each other is never great. We just had to make the best of a bad situation and I think we’ve probably done more than that.
“If you were to ask me in Argentina would I be sitting here in August very happy and content where we are, I maybe would have struggled to give you a “yes” on that. But this has gone far beyond where I thought we’d be at this stage.”
After the summer exodus, the delayed return of the well-regarded Neil Doak after his commitments with Emerging Ireland, along with defensive coach Jonny Bell and promoted academy director Allen Clarke, have also ensured some continuity, according to Best, who also had to fill the captaincy void created by Johann Muller’s departure.
To that end he has been helped by “a good bunch of senior guys that maybe don’t stand up and scream “senior players” at you the way Johann did or some other players previously but they have come through a lot”.
Best admitted to being surprised by some, citing Andrew Trimble. “We’ve probably had more senior players meetings than we had all last season and that’s a good thing.
Adversity“Whenever you get that bit of adversity at the start of the season it can bring you together. People are writing us off a little bit. In the past couple of years it’s always been ‘Ulster are a team to watch’. It’s a little bit less so now.”
Furthermore the newly acquired Sharks trio of fullback Louis Ludik, lock Franco van der Merwe and promising special project prop Wiehan Herbst, as well as Ruaidhri Murphy from the Brumbies, will all be available in the Test window.
“I can’t wait for Friday week,” he admitted yesterday in reference to their Pro12 opener at home to Edinburgh.
“I know we had a bad result last weekend,” he added, in reference to a callow Munster losing 45-8 in Kingsholm before hosting London Irish this Friday in their final warm-up game in Waterford, but maintained they had learned plenty about some of their young fringe players, and namechecked 18-year-old fullback Stephen Fitzgerald.
Pat Lam, entering his second season as Connacht coach, accepted some marquee signings and improved backing from the IRFU had upped the ante for himself and his squad.
“It’s a results business,” he conceded. “We have outcomes we set for our group. If we get the process right, they’re attainable.
“If Connacht qualify for Europe and Leinster win the Pro12, which will the rugby public think is the biggest achievement? We all know what the answer is.”