Brian McLaughlin’s Ulster deal sends clear message
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin’s one-year contract extension sends out a strong and clear message at a critical juncture of the season.
“It's going well so let's keep it that way,” is the clarion call.
With Ulster now occupying third spot in the Magners League, they are on course for a place in top four play-offs. They are in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, too, having reached the last eight of European club rugby’s most prestigious tournament for the first time since 1999.
McLaughlin’s results have earned him this extension; no-one can dispute his entitlement to it or indeed the progress Ulster have made since he took up the reins just under two years ago.
Last year — his first at the helm — Ulster were eighth in the Magners League. But they only just missed out on qualification for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup when, on the final day of pool-stage matches, a bizarre set of results brought about their exit.
Neither the pain of that experience nor the lessons he learnt as a result have been forgotten. To his credit McLaughlin absorbed the blow, turned it into something positive and moved on. His ability to do things like that is one of the reasons for him having been given the contract extension he richly deserves.
The facts and the figures weigh heavily in his favour.
He has brought on-field stability to the Ulster situation, to say nothing of much-improved results.
Proof? Try runs of three and then five successive victories wedged either side of his team’s only defeat since they lost to Munster in Limerick on New Year’s Day.
Tie in home and away Magners League victories over Cardiff Blues, Treviso, Glasgow Warriors and Aironi, plus a Heineken Cup double over Bath for the second season running.
One more away-day Magners League win will give Ulster five on the road this term, which would be their best tally since 2005/06 when they won the title.
Bear in mind, too, the fact that the team he inherited in the summer of 2009 had managed only seven league wins the previous season, a campaign in which they also lost five of their six Heineken Cup group matches, unlike McLaughlin’s heroes of 2010/11, who have won five of their half-dozen in Europe.
Already, with four Magners League matches still remaining, Ulster have chalked up 12 wins. That’s 50% more than in the whole of 2009/10.
Is the coach managing to bring young talent through? Yes — the names Nevin Spence, Paddy McAllister, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Conor Gaston instantly spring to mind.
Has McLaughlin grown into the job? Undoubtedly. When he became Ulster coach, he initially appeared to be ill-at-ease with the high-profile nature of the job, most notably the media’s requirements. Press calls and appearances before the cameras were aspects of the role he did not relish.
That has gone. These days when he sits down to field questions, as often as not there is a quip at the outset.
The haunted look is a thing of the past, having given way to a smile and a glint in the eye.
Obviously results play a part in any coach’s attitude in such situations; clearly it’s easier dealing with journalists, broadcasters and photographers when you’re winning than when you’re losing.
But one suspects this new-found bonhomie may owe something to his acceptance of himself as being the right man for the job.
Convincing others of his entitlement to the post of Ulster coach was only part of the process; equally importantly, he had to convince himself of that fact. Thankfully that now appears to be the case.
McLaughlin also has benefited enormously from Ulster’s Director of Rugby David Humphreys’ ability to attract quality players like the trio of Springboks — Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg — he brought in last summer.
Now, All Blacks prop John Afoa is on his way to Ravenhill. Is it any wonder there is a glint in McLaughlin’s eye these days?
Who, as a coach, wouldn’t enjoy working with players of that calibre every day?
McLaughlin has taken a huge decision in walking away from the security of his teaching job at RBAI to sign up for another year as Ulster coach.
That says a lot about his faith in himself — and Ulster Rugby’s faith in him.