Ulster go on defensive over 'review' of Brian McLaughlin
While Ulster refused to confirm yesterday's revelation that coach Brian McLaughlin will be ditched at the end of the season, sources inside the branch claim the decision has already been made but stressed it was "not a hatchet job".
The branch issued a terse statement yesterday morning saying only that the existing coaching team were out of contract at the end of the season and that their situation is "under review".
However, as the debate raged among Ulster supporters and pundits about whether McLaughlin (who has guided the team to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the last two seasons after Ulster had not reached the knock-out stages since 1999) deserved to be kept on, an Ulster branch source close to the 'inner sanctum' claimed it has been decided that change is necessary.
"This is not a ruthless hatchet job -- he will still have a valuable role to play in Ulster's progression within the Ravenhill set-up. It is less a reflection on Brian than a sign of a desire to move up to another level.
"If Ulster are serious about challenging Leinster and Munster and the big European guns, then they have to be seen to be at the cutting edge... to always be looking at new things. Brian has taken Ulster to a certain level and the plan is to build on that and move ever higher. That is the nature of professional sport ... and Brian understands that."
When he took over as Ulster chief executive two years ago, Shane Logan said he wanted to lift Ulster "to the top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and indeed the world", which would appear to underpin the desire to install a high-profile coach such as John Kirwan.
However, whatever about the realistic nature of such lofty ambitions, there was considerable evidence that McLaughlin was bringing Ulster in the right direction as well as considerable support for the work he was doing, especially in the wake of their superb 41-7 Heineken Cup victory over Leicester last month.
Former Ulster captain Andy Ward, a member of the 1999 European Cup-winning team, yesterday questioned the decision to move McLaughlin aside.
"Ulster may be feel Brian is not the guy to take them to the next level where they would like to be. It is hard to know what they are looking for. Is it a certain style they want to change?" asked Ward.