Bryn Cunningham guiding Ulster revival after tumultous start

Director and former fullback defends Leinster influx but is keen to develop talent

It is March 2018, the Belfast rape trial is ongoing, when Ulster hosts a meeting with season ticket holders. The room is soaked in vitriol as supporters demand answers to rugby-related problems.

Amid all the strife stands Bryn Cunningham.

"It was a very strange period," said Ulster's operations director last Thursday morning in the Kingspan Stadium. "It was really like going into the lion's den. The first event sold out so quickly – which was really worrying – that we had to run a second just to keep everybody happy, and to give them their voice.

“From a personal point of view I thought it was really important that we held the event and we fronted up and were as honest as we can.”


Then chief executive Shane Logan was a noticeable absentee. Noticeable because it was repeatedly mentioned by the loudest voices in the room.

“A lot of people out there were saying it was absolutely dire straits and we were in the biggest hole ever, but I looked at it like it wasn’t quite as bad as that,” said the 41-year-old. “Yes, things were unravelling a little, both on and off the pitch, and things needed to be changed . . .”

By "things" Cunningham could be referring to the eventual clear out of players, coaches and administrative staff, which coincided with a mass influx of Leinster bodies.

Logan has since been replaced as chief executive by former Scotland international Jonny Petrie, and while many others moved on – some needing to be pushed – Cunningham was ever present throughout the most tumultuous period in Ulster Rugby's modern history.

“But there were still a lot of positive green shoots there that people were unaware of. There were good things happening in the background, particularly the work we were doing with the academy.”

That Ulster's provincial academy is producing real talent again equally serves to highlight that, similar to Munster, development of a generation stalled while Leinster were busy building since their breakthrough European success in 2009. Again like Munster, the Ulster academy stopped producing international calibre players in specialist roles such as scrumhalf, prop and secondrow.

“Five years ago we really started to look at position-specific talent,” said Cunningham before adding such seeds may only bloom in “five years time”.

But an immediate solution was needed as Rory Best's generation disappeared in a glut of retirements. In came the Leinster contingent and not just discarded professionals – many of whom from John Cooney and Nick Timoney to the O'Connor brothers from Skerries are carving out impressive careers in Belfast – but proven internationals such as Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath.

The current revival is down to unseen work by Cunningham as much as it stems from Dan McFarland’s inventive guidance or Cooney’s marvellous run of form.

The Ulster fullback for 13 years, Cunningham was outhalf to Leo Cullen's number eight as the Ireland schools went unbeaten through Australia in 1996, with his career path since retiring in 2010 the ideal preparation to negotiate contracts on return to the front office in November 2014.

“I am a poacher turned game keeper,” he laughs. “I was over on the dark side; I went directly from playing professional rugby to becoming an agent. That was one of the main things that attracted me to the role that opened up here; a lot of the things I was doing put me in a good position as I was already dealing with player contracts and succession planning.”

He just needed to reverse the mindset.

“The thing I was conscious about when I first moved back to Ulster was people seeing that association and whether that would have an adverse impact or become a conflict of interest. If anything it was great to have that experience and those relationships.”

No prior experience or relationships could prepare him for what subsequently transpired. The previous summer David Humphreys severed a lifelong connection with the province to become Gloucester's director of rugby, taking All Black tighthead John Afoa with him, in an exit that seemed like an indictment of the organisation's wayward direction.

Humphreys’s final season was the last time Ulster were truly European contenders. Jared Payne’s controversial red card in the quarter-final loss to Saracens effectively led to the disintegration of the team Humphreys had built.

“I came in around November 2014 and we had a very strong first XV on paper that year and in subsequent years but there wasn’t the depth below that.”

Cunningham set about solving this problem but all his endeavours were overshadowed by the court case as Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding – Ireland internationals entering their prime and pillars of the squad – were removed from the equation by the IRFU despite the not guilty verdict.

The reputation of Ulster rugby seemed permanently damaged by the trial, and in many people’s eyes it is, but McFarland’s impact since arriving last winter has given the organisation a new identity.

Twenty-two months ago Cunningham listened to heavy criticism from inside the “lion’s den” before completely ignoring the Ulster supporters clearest demand.

“In the season ticket holder event many people said: ‘You have to get someone with head coaching experience.’ There were fairly big names in the rugby world who were being pushed forward for that role but we felt they wouldn’t be the right fit.

“For me personally Dan exuded all the characteristics for us as a group to move forward.

“I know he had head coaching offers two years before coming here but he knew himself he needed to do more and to work with other people to maximise his preparation so when the time came he was ready to take that role on. He’s a very, very smart guy in that way. Others just want to move up the ladder, maybe too quickly when it is not the right thing for them, but he is very, very careful with his career and how he mapped it out.

“Now, he was under contract. The IRFU were very helpful in finding a solution with the Scottish rugby union.”

The past can never be forgotten but it’s safe to assume that Ulster Rugby have turned the page. They are winning again and talking about a culture that invests in people of a certain character.

“What they are like as individuals was a key thing,” says Cunningham of the recruitment policy. “Guys like Jordi Murphy and Jack McGrath. Knowing they would buy into what we were about.”

Schoolwise we don't have anything near the depth that is down in Leinster

The next step is growth from within. Leinster's deepening list of young props and scrumhalves is brand new to Irish rugby, and this feeds the other provinces, but can the Ulster schools system ever be expected to produce teenagers such as James Ryan and Garry Ringrose on an annual basis?

The short answer is no, not on an annual basis. The long answer belongs to Cunningham.

“It is cyclical and not a perfect science. You cannot manufacture something that is not there. We have been very conscious that there are certain areas over the years we have been lacking at senior level and that we have to invest greater time and insight into what’s coming through the ranks. We have managed to unearth some really strong talent in certain positions but we are still a wee bit away from having a predominantly Ulster born and bred starting XV.

“That’s what people would like to see in time but for us at this moment it is about getting the best team on the pitch that is capable of winning trophies. If that means we are still a bit light in some positions and need to be supplemented with some of the best Irish-qualified [talent] around, that want to play for Ulster and buy into the culture and values that we stand for then that’s what we are going to do.

“I think everyone appreciates that is what is working best for us at the moment,” Cunningham added. “In three to four years time we will be in a much stronger place.”

They are experiencing a boom in rapid wingers as Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune should be joined by Aaron Sexton, a natural born sprinter who chose rugby over track, but he does not envisage replication of the Leinster model.

“Schoolwise we don’t have anything near the depth that is down in Leinster, in terms of the number of schools and number of boys playing the game and probably the coaching structures within those schools. To my understanding pretty much all of them effectively have directors of rugby. It is about widening the net but the single most important thing is making sure our coaching structures are strong at all levels.”

Ulster's head of academy Kieran Campbell double jobs as Ireland under-20s assistant to Noel McNamara (head of the Leinster academy) but other men identifying and moulding the next generation include Willie Anderson and Aiden McNulty, who was brought over from the Newcastle academy.

“We are hoping to have five or six players starting for the Irish 20s and we want them to become top end professionals of the quality to play Champions Cup.”

In the meantime, the Leinster overflow fills some glaring gaps.

“The feeling in Ulster from the vast majority is the pathway we have gone down is the right one. We are embracing it but we are not going to bring people in at the expense of our own home grown when it is a very fine line in terms of ability.”

Ulster’s Key Men in 2020

John Cooney

The form player in world rugby, his exclusion from the Ireland squad last year now seems deeply misguided and he has rammed that decision down the selectors' throats almost every time he has taken to the field. A footballer at heart, his big game tries of late and clutch goal-kicking make him an irresistible choice as starting scrumhalf in the Six Nations.

Stuart McCloskey

Largely ignored by the previous Ireland regime after a debut at Twickenham in 2016, despite remaining a gainline breaker for Ulster with a neat party trick (the previously outlawed offload), the whispers were that this powerful No 12 lacked the head space to fill a green jersey in the manner of Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki or even Chris Farrell. He has trashed that theory of late. The next step is to wreak havoc against Clermont and Bath midfields.

Marcell Coetzee

Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney deserve recognition – Reidy was outstanding against Munster recently – but the Springbok's failure to make South Africa's World Cup squad was a massive boost for Ulster. Signed as a flanker, Coetzee gets his team over the gainline time and again as the resident number eight.

Will Addison

With Jacob Stockdale striding towards world domination once again, Addison has remained a smooth presence in the back field that should make him a certainty to feature for Ireland in the Six Nations, possibly off the bench. Possesses all the tools needed be an internationally recognised fullback. Just needs to avoid injury.

Iain Henderson

Slow to return, understandably, after a World Cup experience when he went from being the dominant forward in victory over Scotland to looking worryingly jaded in defeat to Japan. Ulster have a long tradition of producing heroic secondrows with Henderson needing to grow into the captaincy role if he's ever to be mentioned in the same breath as Willie John McBride and Paddy Johns. Time for the 27-year-old to join these ranks.

Honourable mentions: Billy Burns and Marty Moore