As one of Ulster's longest serving players, who made his debut almost 11 years ago and is embarking upon the third season of eight overall in what is his second coming, Roger Wilson has rarely known such a close-season of upheaval. On top of their captain's retirement, to then lose both their director of rugby and then their head coach left Ulster reeling.
Reports were mixed regarding Mark Anscombe's coaching reign, but while Ulster released the Kiwi of their own volition, the departure of David Humphreys to a comparative role as director of rugby at Gloucester was a shock. As the province's European Cup-winning outhalf and all-time record points scorer, and then the driving force behind Ulster's rejuvenation in recent years, there's little doubt that Humprheys had been Ulster's single most influential figure in the professional era.
“In my eyes I thought he would be here for the long run,” admitted Wilson after Ulster’s training run in Ravenhill, or the newly named Kingspan Stadium, yesterday. “I was out in South Africa at the time (preparing to play for the World XV against South Africa in Cape Town) when I heard it, and I thought it was a wind-up to be honest. Obviously he’s got his personal reasons for what he’s done and we all have to do that at times. Fair play to him, he’s done something that he feels is the right call and we wish him all the best but yeah, definitely for me it was a big shock.”
Wilson had a more interesting summer than most, and having played for the Barbarians against England at Twickenham, was in Cape Town preparing to play for a World XV against South Africa when news broke of David Humphreys’ departure. “They were different to any other games you have to prepare for, in every respect. It was very much old school and an experience I’ll never forget.”
The departure of Humprheys and Anscombe came on top of losing Johann Muller, John Afoa and Tom Court. "It was all unexpected but it does happen in sport, although may be not to the extent that it has this summer. In any case, there's not much you can do as a player except to get on with it. The good thing is that we have a lot of our players coming through now who are very enthusiastic and it just keeps the appetite for work very high.
‘Level of expectation’
“The level of expectation is still very high regardless of who we’ve lost and who is coach and all that, but with the draw that we’ve got in Europe we’re going to have to step things up,” admitted Wilson in reference to Ulster’s brute of a European Rugby Champions Cup pool draw against Leicester, Toulon and Scarlets.
Wilson acknowledges on foot of the exodus of Ulster’s chain of command: “It’s normal for the public to think there’s been a little bit of a backward step with all the changes but I haven’t seen the squad as hungry for success as ever, judging by the work that’s been put in during pre-season. Only games will tell,” admitted Wilson on the eve of Ulster’s pre-season friendly at home to Exeter Chiefs on Friday night, “but at the moment we feel like we’re in a good place. The appetite and hunger is there anyway.”
That appetite for silverware has also been augmented by the appointment of Allen Clarke as forwards coach and assistant to interim head coach Les Kiss. Significantly too, Wilson has rarely felt healthier physically and, like many at Ulster, has reason to feel unfulfilled.
“It’s been a while since we’ve won something big and that’s what you’re judged on whenever you finish playing. Just because we’ve had a few changes there’s no reason why we can’t win things. Maybe people will underestimate us. Who knows? But definitely we’re looking to win something.”