Ulster paying the price for making a mess of its coaching situation
Alan Quinlan: Players perform best when there is stability rather than constant chopping
Ulster’s Nick Williams and Jared Payne dejected after the loss to Toulon at the weekend. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho
I thought Ulster would be better than this. It was arguable going into the start of the European season that they were actually the best placed Irish team to do well.
They had a few injuries but nothing like what Leinster have had to contend with. They have a tough enough group but you wouldn’t say it’s significantly tougher than Munster’s surely. But here they are, not even into November yet, and they’re as good as gone from the tournament.
Against Glasgow in the Pro-12 the week before the Leicester game, they looked full of confidence. They looked sharp and sure of themselves, like a team who knew what they were about and what they wanted to do.
But in the two Champions Cup games so far, they’ve been making the sort of mistakes that get made by teams who are low on ideas.
Against Leicester in the first game, they had the same sort of non-performance in the first half as Munster and Leinster had that weekend. The difference was that they left themselves too much to do whereas the other pair got out of the jam.
They worked out what was needed and turned the game their way. When the pressure came on, they didn’t really look like they knew what they were trying to do.
It looks to me like somewhere along the way, Ulster have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to the playing side of things. You walk into Ravenhill now and it’s a better stadium to what it was even just five years ago.
You talk to people in the crowd and there’s no doubt they’ve spread the word further out into other parts of the province and have got new supporters and are growing the game. These are all good, worthwhile things for them to be doing.
But through all that time, Ulster have been going through coaches like an English soccer club. Brian McLaughlin, Mark Anscombe, Neil Doak, Les Kiss. By this time next year, they will have had four different head coaches in just over three years.
I know the official name for Kiss’s job next year is Director of Rugby but in reality he is going to be a hands-on coach, the man the players have to impress above all others.
This has all been handled so badly. It goes right back to when they got rid of McLaughlin at the end of 2012, a season in which he took them to the Heineken Cup final.
I thought it was a harsh decision at the time and from this viewpoint two-and-a-half years later, it just looks wrong. They obviously thought they were replacing him with someone better in Anscombe but they eventually realised that they backed the wrong horse.
If you’re bringing in someone from overseas – be it a player or a coach – you have to know that they’re better than what you have. That has to be the criteria. You must know what you’re getting.
I don’t think that Anscombe’s CV was really that much better than McLaughlin’s at the time and it looks a lot like Ulster took a punt on someone they hoped would be a step-up in the mould of Joe Schmidt. It hasn’t worked out for them and in fact it’s been the root of their problems ever since.
Kiss is obviously the man they want. What does that tell Neil Doak? What does it tell the players who are playing for a coach whose authority has been undermined from the start? How does the rest of the season play out for Doak now that Europe is more or less out of reach?
Ulster have got themselves into a muddle and the ripple effect is making its way onto the pitch where it matters most.
Players do what they can to ignore all the comings and goings above them. You focus on the group, on getting the dynamic in the dressing room right. But you’re only human and these are issues that affect your future and your livelihood. If there are problems with the way business is done at the top of the organisation, the potential for it to spill down into the dressing room is obvious.
Every group experiences change from time to time. In a professional sport where players and staff move around from job to job, a certain amount of traffic in and out is the norm. But if you’re making big changes, you have to be confident in them. And they have to be for the long term. It’s no accident that most successful clubs are the ones that have stability.
A lack of stability at the top has a knock-on effect. Next year is a World Cup year – potentially a time when there are more top-quality southern hemisphere players on the market than any other in the four-year cycle between tournaments. Imagine you’re a player that Ulster are trying to recruit from overseas. Are you really going to be enticed by a club that keeps chopping and changing its head coach?
Trying to impress
You want to know that the guy who comes and gets you is in it for the long haul, that you can work together without having to wonder is there going to be another blank slate to work off this time next year.
Ulster look unsettled. They look disjointed. What does it say that David Humphreys has been lost? This was the guy who was the driving force behind them – how can it be that they weren’t able or willing to keep him?
Players these days ask nearly as many questions as they answer when they’re being recruited. Sometimes it can be as if they are interviewing the club rather than the other way around. What’s the plan for the future? What are the structures like? Who else is being signed? How settled is the squad?
As for the players already in the province, all this change can get demoralising after a while. For a player, the most important person in their working life is the head coach. You have to be able to form a bond with him – not a friendship, but a relationship that gets the best out of you for him.
This is built on feedback, on the small bits and pieces of progress that make up your working day. You set your targets together and then you go and do the work to reach those targets before getting your reward – a place in the team. But when the top man is changing from year to year and season to season, that progress gets lost.
As a player, you’re wondering who you should be trying to impress. Who should you be talking to? Whose advice should you be chasing? Above all, where is the guy that you’re able to sit down across the table from and go, “I’ve just signed a two-year contract – you and I are going to go for this together.”
You need that bond between you and the guy who’s giving you your opportunity. The guy who backs you, who has decided that you’re a key part of his plan. But no Ulster player has had a chance to form that bond the way things have gone over the past three years. Every coach has a different belief. Every coach comes with a different plan and a new outlook.
It creates doubt where there doesn’t need to be any. Older guys start to wonder if yet another new coach is going to have a clear-out. Younger guys trying to rise through the ranks keep having to start again with coaches who haven’t been keeping tabs on their progress. Academy guys who are in a crucial phase of their development can find that the goalposts have moved on them.
And the worst aspect of it is that they seem to have missed their moment. Ulster were the coming team in Europe. There was room for them to become the top Irish team in the competition with Munster in transition and Leinster losing Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen.
They had the right age profile in the playing staff, they’d been through a Heineken Cup final defeat together – this was the time to kick on and go right to the very top. Win Europe. Be dominant. Take advantage of that growing fanbase and the fortress of Ravenhill. Set out their stall as the leading Irish province and grab that identity for themselves.
But they botched it. Starting with the shafting of McLaughlin, on through choosing the wrong man in Anscombe, losing Humphreys and now the chopping and changing between Kiss and Doak and back to Kiss. It’s been a bit of a shambles all round.