David Humphreys a man on a brand new mission
It is now over three months since David Humphreys finally brought the curtain down on his glittering playing career but as we meet up at the restaurant at Newforge Country Club in south Belfast, there is still a pronounced limp to his walk.
The ankle injury that caused so much disruption to his final season, and limited his emotional farewell at Ravenhill against the Cardiff Blues in May to just eight minutes, has yet to heal up and a swelling the size of a golf ball is testament to his pain.
While it may be an unwanted hassle for him, at least Humphreys is not longer worried about shaking the injury for the start of the new season and has watched the new Ulster squad’s pre-season conditioning sessions with little envy. Not that he has time for such emotions.
With Ulster set to face Bath at Ravenhill on Friday in the first of three pre-season friendlies, the 36-year-old is already deeply immersed in his new role as the squad’s operations director.
If the job title sounds vague, you get the sense it was meant to be.
Although he has no direct input into the management team, and is answerable to Ulster’s chief executive Michael Reid as opposed to head coach Matt Williams, Humphreys is being give a largely free rein to make a big impact – but this time off the pitch rather than on it.
His remit is a broad one, ranging from improving the, previously at times, fraught relations with clubs, attracting inward investment from local businesses to the recruitment of new players.
“Initially (my role) has been finding out how the Ulster rugby machine works and how I am going to fit into that and bring something to it,” said Humphreys, who turned down the offer to return to work as a solicitor to take up this new position within Ulster Rugby.
“Primarily, I am here to help Matt and the management team get the best out of our players, so we can win games on the pitch. To do that you have to provide the players with an environment and facilities that enable them to prepare well and perform to their
Humphreys’ reputation as one of the province’s sporting ambassadors precedes him, but Ulster are also hoping his sharp business acumen, worldwide contacts and wealth of experience at the cutting edge of the professional game, will yield rich dividends.
One of the most crucial areas of Humphreys’ role will attracting financial support from both wealthy individuals and corporate Ulster as Ravenhill bids to keep pace with European rugby’s big-hitters.
Plans are already afoot for a new board to be drawn up, representing rugby and the business world, to run the professional game in Ulster.
Munster and to a lesser extent Leinster have long since benefited from well-heeled supporters donating sizeable war chests to help fund world class signings like former All Black star Doug Howlett.
Humphreys, who has been impressed by Williams’ close season signings and is hoping the supporters will get behind the team in great numbers from the off, feels Ulster are entering a critical period in which there is a danger the province could be left behind for good.
“With the way the game is going, money is the driving force,” added Humphreys. “We have to generate the cash to bring in the best players.
“I will be working closely with Michael Reid in trying to attract sponsors to come in and for people to buy into the idea that for Ulster to go forward, we have to get facilities that match the rest of the stadia of the clubs in the UK and Ireland.
“When you see what Munster and Leinster have now and so many of the English Premiership clubs, if you are trying to attract top players in, you have got to be able to show them facilities that are at least comparable to the likes of Leicester and Wasps.
“We need to engage more with the business community and bring the supporters in behind us to see what we are trying to achieve.
“In the current financial climate, it is difficult and it is not going to happen overnight, but the goal within two or three years is to have the facilities at Ravenhill and at Newforge, where the team train, that we can be proud of.”
The building of a new stand at Ravenhill, which should be ready in time for the start of the 2009/2010 season, is a major step forward, as are plans to build a new training facility at Newforge, which will include an indoor third-generation pitch.
“We hope to have the stand up and running within 12 months and the idea is that after two or three years it will have paid for itself and will be generating more money which ultimately will go to recruiting better players,” added Humphreys, who will also be working closely with the Ulster Academy to bring it closer to the professional team.
“We want to see players who have played international rugby at the top level, but to do that everything has to be in place in terms of facilities and you have to be able to pay them. And salaries at the minute are going up and up and up as the demand for top quality players rises.”
An important facet to Humphreys’ role will be the contract negotiations with the players and further down the line the search for a new coach when Matt Williams’s reign is over.
Stephen Ferris highlighted Humphreys’ involvement as one of the factors in his decision to sign a new three-year contract in June.
And following the departure of home-grown stars like Tommy Bowe, Neil Best and Roger Wilson, Humphreys will no doubt be keen to talk to the likes of Andrew Trimble, whose contract expires at the end of this season, about a new deal.
“The difficulty was that last year, a lot of our top players, who had originally agreed two, three or four year deals, all came off together, which made it seem a lot worse than purely in numbers terms as it is probably the same number every year,” he added.
“If you are trying to build a team, it doesn’t matter what sport, you want to build the team around your best players and you want them committing to play for Ulster.
Tying up a player like Stephen Ferris makes a massive statement of intent from Ulster. It ties in with the vision Ulster have now.
“Andrew falls into the same category. What they bring is everything you want from an Ulster rugby player and we will be trying very hard to keep Andrew.
“But he has got to see that what we have got here is as good as anywhere else and got to be playing winning rugby because he is hugely ambitious.
“There are a new generation of players coming through and it is up to them to drive Ulster forward and take us back to where where we think we should be.”