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.”
Steely and determined
McLaughlin departed at the end of last season, the announcement of that with iron-fisted Humphreys at his side as cold and implacable a press conference ever witnessed. Humphreys sat through it steely and determined despite little offering of why McLaughlin was leaving. In the coach’s first European season Ulster had wins at home over Stade Français and home and away against Bath. The following year the team punched through the pool and made it to the quarter-finals.
Last season they escaped a group that also housed Leicester and Clermont Auvergne, then went to Thomond Park, where only one side had won before in the Heineken Cup and beat Munster. But McLaughlin’s sell by date was due and his contract was up. Humphreys saw the future with a different face leading. Mark Anscombe was posted his plane ticket before Ulster even stepped on to the pitch against Leinster in the 2012 final.
Wilson was coached by McLaughlin as a student at RBAI School but never at Ulster. Although the former teacher was a link in the progress and history will see him as an important figure, the combination of changes at macro and micro levels with Humphreys and Logan at the helm, is what has shone through in the planned renaissance.
The first signs of a breakthrough for the squad as well as vindication of the financial investment by Ulster and the air miles travelled by Humphreys as he sold the idea of Belfast as a home for New Zealanders and South Africans, was in the Spring of 2011. Ulster were about to face Northampton in Milton Keynes in the Heineken Cup quarter-final and the team fell under the public gaze.
“We have invested money in persuading some of the best players in the world to come over here,” Humphreys said then. “The difference they have made has been evident almost every week. They’ve all been unbelievably influential in different ways. We had good players already, but what we lacked in tight games was the leadership and experience that makes a difference. There have been several games this year down to one score. Over the past years, we’ve lost those games, this year, we’ve won them all.”
When Wilson arrived back in Belfast at the start of the season he was still recovering from a serious hamstring tear injury and it was not until October that he finally made his return performance for Ulster against Dragons. Since then he has been challenging for a starting place with the now injured Nick Williams, who has been having a sensational season. But the 31-year-old, who also steps into the elite ERC 50 club with Paddy Wallace, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, David Humphreys, Justin Fitzpatrick and Gary Longwell, has also captained the side in the absence of captain, Johann Muller.
“Yeah he’s (Humphreys) got to get praise for a lot of it,” he says. “He’s done it on the playing front. He knows the game inside out. He knows what needs to be there, what resources need to be allocated in certain areas and he’s obviously made some ruthless decisions.
“So far they are paying off . . . not just David Humphreys but Shane Logan, the CEO, he’s doing a fantastic job. It’s on the pitch that you see this. So far we’re doing very well in both competitions. We’re in the middle of January and we’ve only lost a few games. It’s pretty impressive so you’ve got to say it’s the best season so far that Ulster has had.”
Ulster meet Castres today at Stade Pierre Antoine not having won a tournament match in France in 14 previous visits. Victory and a home quarter-final could finally swing the competition Ulster’s way and be the making of Anscombe. Regardless of what message comes out of Ulster, comparisons will be made with McLaughlin’s 2012 final and Humphreys’ call. One thing the Kiwi has done well has been to cement the team and today, with a raft of injuries including Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Luke Marshall, Muller and Williams, that will need expression.
“His job as coach is really to galvanise the squad,” explains Wilson. “Mark has been very good at bringing everyone together, getting the best out players and making sure they don’t rest on their laurels.
“He’s a good man manager and I think that’s a lot of the battle as a head coach. Generally he’s a very easy guy to get on with but whenever he needs to come down on us like a ton of bricks he will, whether it’s at half-time or a Monday morning video session. You don’t want to be like that every week or it could be negative but whenever he needs to he’s not afraid to read the riot act. He does have that ruthless streak. He’s also the perfectionist. He’s very rarely said to us this season ‘that’s a very good performance’.”
An exacting coach, who is hard to please. You’d imagine Dr David Humphreys MBE would, overseeing his work, approve.
Important dates in Ulster's rise
2006 – David Humphreys retires.
2009 – Humphreys appointed Operations Director.
2009-10 – Shane Logan new Ulster CEO (First win on English soil v Bath).
2010-11 – Ruan Pienaar, Johan Muller, John Afoa join (First quarter-final since 1999).
2011-12 – First Heineken Cup final in 13 years.
2012-13 – Mark Anscombe appointed coach.
Players in this season: Tommy Bowe (Ospreys); Roger Wilson (Northampton); Niall O’Connor (Connacht); Rob Herring (Western Province); Michael Heaney (Doncaster Knights); Seán Doyle (Southern Districts); Nick Williams (Aironi).
Players out: Conor Gaston (London Irish), Ian Whitten (Exeter Chiefs); Willie Faloon (Connacht); Pedrie Wannenburg (Castres); Andy Kyriacou (Cardiff Blues); Ian Humphreys (London Irish;) Tim Barker (Rainey Old Boys); Simon Danielli (Retired); Stefan Terblanche (Retired); James McKinney (Rotherham); Jerry Cronin (Doncaster Knights); Nevin Spence (Deceased).