Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Magners League: Ulster are the best in a decade

Captains and leading players from the 12 Magners League sides, including Ulster's Bryn Cunningham (second left) at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium for yesterday's launch

Ulster Rugby’s operations director David Humphreys has been involved in sufficient new campaigns to know that this is when the adrenalin really starts to flow.

As a player-turned-management-figure he is able to see things through the eyes of those who just want to get out on the pitch, there to perform to the best of their ability, and those whose job is to create the best possible chances of them doing so.

Yesterday at the Millennium Stadium he spoke of the coming season and what it might hold. There was much positivity in his words, something from which Ulster supporters will take heart.

They know him to be a straight-talking man not given to hype or trite lines. So when he describes the 2010/11 Ulster squad as being “the best for a decade”, they will view that as cause for optimism.

“Any year, any new season, there is always a sense of optimism around. I think our optimism this year probably is built on two things.

“We had a very good start last season and then the wheels came off a little bit, although we thought we were moving very much in the right direction.

“Add that to the fact that we have retained all the players we wanted to retain and then we’ve brought in three or four world-class players.

“For those reasons — the promise we showed last year, the players we have retained and the players we’ve brought in — we think we’ll have a much more competitive squad,” he said.

Referring to the trio of South Africans — Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar — to have enlisted, Humphreys highlighted the Springboks’ all-round quality.

“They are very good players, they have great CVs, they’re hugely impressive personalities and they’re very good guys. First and foremost we wanted to recruit players who are very good on the pitch. But almost as importantly was the recruitment of guys who would give us a great deal off the pitch as well.

“That’s maybe something we’ve been lacking a wee bit in the past — enough guys with sufficient personality, leadership and the will to win.

“I think the indications so far from Muller and Wannenburg are that they have bought into everything we’re trying to do, so I think they are going to be hugely influential, both on the pitch and to the young players around them.”

He knows better than anyone that with 2011 being a World Cup year the IRFU will ensure that players like Stephen Ferris, Rory Best, Tom Court, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble are used sparingly.

Much responsibility will rest on the South Africans when those men are absent.

Humphreys continued: “In the past maybe some of our foreign players haven’t been of the standard required.

“What we tried to do now is ensure that any foreign player we have signed is one who is going to be up to task throughout the season.

“I think that is something we have done, so now it’s about keeping them fit.”

Explaining how Ulster, like the other provinces, must operate within the player management structure designed to maximise Ireland’s World Cup bid there was no hint of annoyance when he said: “That is going to require Irish players to be rested at certain times throughout the season.

“We will also be required to play players in different positions and there are maximum and minimum game time requirements in terms of when they are picked.”

Tellingly he added: “While not quite targeting games there will be certain games in which our top international players will play.”

In other words take six Heineken Cup matches as a given and add as many Magners League dates with the big guns as can be accommodated.

It’s going to be an interesting campaign.

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