Is it a sign that you are doing something right when you make major announcements and they get mentioned in two hemispheres and have thousands, if not millions of tongues wagging? If so, then it is further evidence that Ulster rugby is on the up.
The first piece of news, of course, is that wunderkind Tommy Bowe is heading back home from his extended sojourn in Wales. A major boost for the province, the irony of his defection will not be lost on the Ospreys management and supporters. Originally, Tommy joined the big-spending Welsh region along with a host of other top names in order to pursue his rugby education and stand a better opportunity of winning trophies. While the silverware may have been fairly elusive, the move did wonders for his game and propelled him to stardom. He left as a quality player with huge potential and returns as a true superstar of the game.
Bowe has been Ireland’s most dangerous player and lethal finisher in the last five years on the international scene. Even better, he left his imprint on South African rugby with his performances in the Lions’ Test matches in 2009. Such is his current form that one would expect him to be selected for next year’s tour to Australia and an outstanding candidate for a Test berth. He displays all the attributes of a modern day professional – an exceptionally athletic build both in height and weight, pace to burn, quality defence and terrific ball skills in terms of orthodox passing and offloading in and out of contact.
Gone are the days where one is classed as an exclusive right or left winger. Like most threequarters these days Bowe is versatile and can play in every position outside the flyhalf spot. In all ways, he is the ultimate professional rugby player and commands the salary to match. Ulster’s graph is heading in the right direction and he is joining when there is still room for improvement. The big carrot is to be part of the next big Ulster success story. One hopes, however, that the big success might happen this season and that Bowe will have the task of emulating rather than creating Heineken or RaboDirect history. This should not deflect from the fact that it is a tremendous piece of news and that he will set hearts racing again at Ravenhill.
It is fair to say that Tommy Bowe’s name and life story are much better known than the second piece of big news in recent weeks. The announcement of Ulster’s new head coach, Mark Anscombe, had most supporters uttering the word ‘Who?’ From the outside it certainly is an appointment which has all the hallmarks of the term ‘left-field’ and Anscombe will arrive with major question marks to be answered.
He will have to hit the ground running quickly, because whoever the new coach was going to be, the last two seasons have generated enormous expectation and pressure. Two quarterfinals in successive seasons (and hopefully better to come) are serious yardsticks against which to be measured. One assumes, however, that this is a decision taken with a huge amount of scrutiny and information-gathering. Ulster’s other Kiwi imports, Afoa and Payne, will surely have been consulted, and other references taken.
Anscombe is not coming in off the back of some major success story other than his involvement with New Zealand’s U20 set-up. This both impresses me and plays to my cynicism. Kiwi under-age teams play some of the best rugby you will ever see but their playing resources are considerable and I wonder just how good a coach you have to be to achieve success in this environment?
I can remember the New Zealand U19 team in Belfast a few years ago and the front row was bigger than the then Ulster senior front row.
There is nothing else for it but to have faith, reserve judgement and not to pre-judge. Up to now, players of the highest quality have been lured to Ravenhill by David Humpreys and Shane Logan.
What we can be sure of is that Mark Anscombe will be working with the most talented professional Ulster team ever assembled.
But, make no mistake, the beady eyes of Ulster’s rugby public will be on the Kiwi right from the start and specifically whether he produces something more than Brian McLaughlin.