Ulster poised to reap reward of renaissance fired by Humphreys
There were years when treading water was as much as Ulster could do, content not to drown. Those days in south Belfast sometimes seemed more dreary than they had any right to be.
A team firmly wedged below the swaggering successes of Leinster and Munster and above Connacht were shrouded days of mediocrity at Ravenhill. Ulster, despite the will and the energy, just couldn’t kick on from a provincial pecking order that had them year to year lurching lamely though the Heineken Cup pools.
Any experience of a European knockout phase was a decade behind and of another century. With pride that flickered to life only under Friday night lights in Onslow Parade, Ulster were no easy knock over but nor was there any visible culture of success. Then, in 2006 David Humphreys retired.
Since then perhaps, it has been a conspiracy of coincidences but the game-changing decisions of the last few Ulster seasons came about as the former outhalf abandoned his law career with Mike Gibson’s company, Tughans, to maintain his romance with rugby, although, Humphreys was no romantic.
Uneasy about the prospect of post-playing career, it seemed like a seamless appointment when Ulster announced in 2009 the 38-year-old would take control of Rugby Operations, with responsibility for the Ulster senior team, the Ulster Ravens, under-20s and the high performance/academy structure, reporting to the then chief executive Michael Reid.
Brian McLaughlin was appointed as a new head coach but the former outhalf would hold the reins for overseeing all aspects of team management and preparation, ensuring Ulster were prepared to a world-class level. He would drive Ulster’s attempts to produce a squad largely made up of home-grown players, supported by a cohort of carefully chosen high profile players from overseas.
In the move from boot room to board room, the player’s imperative to win came with him and Humphreys dived into the job with a pioneering spirit.
Shane Logan, the new chief executive, arrived in 2010, replacing Reid and Humphreys’ outhalf brother, Ian, left at the end of last season for London Irish. Ruan Pienaar, as perfect an acquisition as Rocky Elsom at Leinster, followed three other prized Springboks and All Black prop Johan Afoa into George Best Airport. Number eight Roger Wilson was brought back from Northampton and Tommy Bowe coaxed from Ospreys. Even the ground at Ravenhill embarked on a multi-million euro make over.
Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, the late Nevin Spence, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson, the principle reason for Ian Humphreys making way, all kicked through.
“When I arrived back the squad was probably the main difference (from when I left), the quality of the players they had brought in,” says Wilson, who made more than 100 appearances with Northampton before returning to Ulster at the end of last season.
But outside of the squad, the set-up of Ulster Rugby had also been revamped. It came from the top down, the way it was being run to the background staff. It had become more professional. That then reflected on the players brought in and the squad and that in turn reflected in the performances.
“Not just that . . . the Ulster-based players, the home-grown ones that have played on and stuck it through, they have become very ambitious. They have become leaders. They have gone through some difficult times but they are desperate to win things. They have seen what Munster and Leinster have done in the past few years and they are desperate not to be left out of that. They are very much more ambitious than when I was there and that’s not just the players, it’s through out the whole Ulster set up.”