Ulster poised to reap reward of renaissance fired by Humphreys
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.”