At face value, Ulster seem set to start off next season in an even bigger mess than they were at times last season. Their new head coach, Dan McFarland, may not be arriving until midway through the campaign as he still under contract to the Scottish RFU. They also need a new chief executive and they have only one young outhalf, Jonny McPhillips, on their books. Apart from that . . .
Yet it seems that contingency plans are in place to resolve all these problems.
The most pressing is resolving McFarland’s situation with the Scots or, failing that, bringing in some outside help.
"We knew that when we signed Dan we had a clause in his contract, and we accepted that, and if it turns out that that's the way that it ends up being, then that's fine," said IRFU Irish high performance director David Nucifora this week.
“We’ll just deal with that. We do have a bit of a Plan B in place if that’s the case, and we’ll just wait and see what the Scottish Rugby Union decide to do with Dan probably after the (Scottish) tour. Obviously we would like, and Ulster would like, for him to be there at the start of the season but if he can’t be well then we’ll accept that and as I say we’ve got something that we’ll do to support Ulster.”
Nucifora was not in a position to reveal Plan B.
“I can’t tell you just yet.”
It will not be an interim head coach per se, according to Nucifora
“No, probably just some help for the coaches up there. We’ll wait and see. I don’t think we’ll have clarity on that until the tours are finished, so we’ll just see when we all get back home after our June tours and just see what the lay of the land is I suppose, and see if the scenario has changed somewhat.”
But, in that scenario, the widespread belief is Ireland assistant/defensive coach Andy Farrell would spend the first few months of the season as a glorified, interim head coach (thus, including interim head coaches, making him Ulster ninth in a dozen years).
Regarding McFarland, Nucifora said it was not a case paying the Scots compensation. “No, there’s no reason to do that. They’re not asking for money. No one has asked for money. At the moment they just wanted to utilise his services.”
Towards the end of last season, Ulster were described as “a bit of a basket case” by Brian O’Driscoll, a view which former player Stephen Ferris said was “totally fair”, and were McFarland not come aboard until January there must be a risk of further disruption.
“I think that’s the worst case scenario,” said Nucifora. “Do I think it will be January? No I don’t. I think there will be a resolution before then so I am not concerned that it’s going to be January. There are lots of things going on in Ulster. There is a major rebuild underway. The coaching team that remains has only been in place for a year so really they’re still new. Obviously Dan is coming in as the head coach, there’s a new CEO going to be appointed, there’s a new head of strength and conditioning, a new head of physiotherapy that we are in throes of appointing up there. So it is a total rebuild that’s going on and I think that’s exciting. That’s positive.”
Yet as a relatively golden generation comes to an end with a welter of retirements and the departure of Charles Piatau, Ulster have been lagging way behind Leinster, and arguably the other provinces, in producing home grown players – the emergence of Jacob Stockdale covering a multitude.
“Yes but there are some good players coming through their system,” maintained Nucifora. “Admittedly it’s not the volume that’s coming out of Leinster but that’s probably proportionate to the population. But there is some good talent up there, young talent, and in the last eight weeks of the season you started to see that. Some of the young players were given opportunity finally and showed what they could do. It was great that they managed to win that play-off game and maintain their place in Europe.”
“I just think that when we get all of these things ironed out, it will definitely help. It won’t be overnight. It’s unrealistic to think that it will just turnaround on a sixpence but as I said, if we are going to do it, we’ve got to do it properly. There is a major rebuild going on up there and we need to make sure that we get the right people doing the right jobs. If we do that, then the right talent will come through.”
Nucifora confirmed the union had rejected Ulster’s proposal to sign Springboks outhalf Elton Jantjies, albeit Joey Carbery’s preference for Munster clearly went against the high performance director’s preference that he join Leinster.
“Our first option is always to find an Irish solution whatever possible because we need to make sure the system is strong with Irish options. The Elton Jantjies thing that was brought up, it didn’t make any sense because we want to try and find an Irish solution.”
“Yes, we hoped that Joey might take up that opportunity. It didn’t pan out that way is because that was the players choice but was Jantjies the right option? For example, he’s going to be playing in the World Cup no doubt, he’s going to be away for large chunks of time. South Africa we knew were recalling their players. At least we’ve got a better line of communication now with the South African coach,” noted Nucifora ironically in reference to Rassie Erasmus.
“We are aware of a few things . So that didn’t really make any sense. Going forward for them, we still hope there is an Irish option for them that we are working on but would we consider a foreigner to help them if we had to? Yeah, we would, if it made sense, absolutely. But our preference would be to find a good Irish alternative if we can do that.”
Nucifora said this would not be one of the outhalves on Munster's roster, nor even from one of the other provinces, with Ian Madigan and Gareth Steenson also being ruled out.
“Look we are always trying to find solutions and we’ve got to think laterally at times so we try and do that. We want our teams to be successful. We don’t go out there trying to make things hard for them. We actually go out there to try and make it easier for them and we just ask hard questions at times to try and make sure that the solutions are genuine solutions.”