Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Ulster boss Brian won’t shy from big decisions

By nature Brian McLaughlin is a shy man. For that reason he is likely to find the public glare and high profile of his position as Ulster Rugby’s head coach at least as demanding as working with players in the hope of producing winning performances. Probably more so.

Coaching is second nature. It is what he does. He is at ease in dealing with players, matters relating to them and the game’s tactics. That is his element.

But the public-face aspect of the new job is alien and he gives the distinct impression of not being wholly comfortable with it.

In dealing with journalists and photographers he comes across as being wary.

That said, pre-match questions and post-match interviews go with the territory; those are the realities. Hopefully he will adapt.

When in June, having been confirmed as Ulster’s new head coach, he made his first appearance before the assembled media, he spoke of his delight at having been appointed, his hope of eradicating unforced errors and defensive frailty from his team, his commitment to individual players' and overall team discipline and his determination to maximise what he called “the Ulster factor”.

It was a measured — and clever — introduction of himself in that he used the occasion to highlight things the Ulster rugby public had identified as problems.

And by referring to “the Ulster factor” and stressing the importance of the Ravenhill crowd’s support, he was including those who fill the terraces and seats.

Again, clever, for the inference was, “This isn’t about me; it’s about all of us. We’re in this together and the more united, we are, the more we can achieve.”

In vowing to work towards restoring Ravenhill’s status as a fortress where the crowd would have a part to play he also cited the fact that like his assistants, Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak, he is proud to be an Ulsterman. Another good call. Hereabouts we like passion; here he was recognising that fact.

Speaking prior to the new season’s opening friendly against Newcastle Falcons, outgoing Ulster Rugby chief executive, Michael Reid, asked — and then answered — a rhetorical question: “What is success for us? How do we measure it? Is it about winning the Heineken Cup or is about taking some steps up the stairs?

“If you’re being honest it is about taking steps up the stairs.”

Now that’s to tell it like it is, for let’s face it, Ulster are not going to win the Heineken Cup.

Qualification for the knockout stage would be near miracle — not so much a case of taking steps up the stairs as installing a lift.

And any Magners League placing better than last season’s eighth of 10 runners finish would be an

improvement. But while coach McLaughlin obviously must have stair climbing goals in mind, he isn’t divulging any details.

“If you say we’re hoping to do this or that and you don’t manage to do so then you’re seen to have failed. You end up with egg on your face, so I’m not going to do that,” he explains.

“But obviously we will be trying to improve in terms of our results and we’ll be aiming for consistency in our level of performance.

“There were occasions last season when the team played particularly well — against Munster at Thomond Park in January is the match that springs to mind in particular.

“As a result of that, we know what we can do on our day. Now we have to build on that and make that our level of performance week in and week out.”

Of course they will be “trying to improve in terms of results and aiming for consistency in the level of performance.

That’s a case of stating the obvious, using very general terms whilst carefully avoiding saying anything specific. Politicians do it routinely.

But in the final analysis they, like sports coaches, are judged on results.

And in that Brian McLaughlin is nobody’s fool, he knows that better than anybody.

Which is why at this stage, rather than making rash predictions or promises, he is keeping his thoughts to himself, his view being that if there is any talking to be done, let it be done on the pitch, by the players, starting this weekend.

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