Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Heineken Cup: Current crop are the best I’ve seen, says Humphreys

David Humphreys is excited by Ulster's European run
David Humphreys is excited by Ulster's European run

David Humphreys is not one for making grandiose, headline-grabbing, eye-popping statements. In short he doesn't do Jose Mourinho. So, when he comes out and says today's Ulster team is the best in his lifetime, it's worth taking note.

Remember, when Humphreys was a teenager, Ulster, with players like Willie Anderson, Philip Matthews, David Irwin, Trevor Ringland and Keith Crossan dominated the inter-provincial series from the mid-80s during the amateur era.

There was of course the legendary 1999 squad who, with Humphreys (pictured below) as captain, became European Champions and in 2006, with professionalism in full swing, the men from Ravenhill had a respected outfit which won the Celtic League.

As much as we have enjoyed this season's glorious Heineken Cup adventure, the Ulster side of 2011/2012 have won nothing yet.

According, however, to Ulster's Director of Rugby, ahead of their mouthwatering semi-final with Edinburgh in the Aviva stadium, the current crop stand alone.

“It's the best Ulster team I've known and the best Ulster team I've ever been involved in,” says Humphreys, who will turn 41 in September.

“We have Lions in this squad, we have World Cup winners, New Zealand World Cup winners, South African World Cup winners and internationals throughout the team. It's a high quality side.”

High quality it may be, but Humphreys is still not satisfied, which gives an indication into the desire and ambition that kept him going as an outstanding Ulster and Ireland number 10 for so many years.

“If we want to be the same as Leinster and Munster and competing all the time at the highest level we need to keep signing top players and developing top players,” he says.

“We all have an ambition to take Ulster as far as we can. It's been an exciting few years and the victory over Munster in the quarter-final of the European Cup was a sign that after talking a lot about it we are actually getting there now.

“I don't think we are finished here though. There is still more work to be done. There is enormous potential when you look at where rugby union is going. Who knows what league we will be in, who knows who we will be competing against in the future?

“It is our challenge that, as the game evolves, because it is still young in professional terms, Ulster rugby is positioned to ensure that we are right at the centre of it. We want to be at the top table whatever the future holds.”

Humphreys is an intriguing character. Educated at Ballymena Academy, Queen's and Oxford University, he's gone from the classy player who made all the decisions on the field to the powerful administrator making major calls off it.

He takes a guarded approach with the media and would be suspicious of some scribes. I get the feeling I fall into that category.

He is a man who likes to be in control. It's fair to say the pair of us have different views on certain issues and ahead of this interview in his office, which overlooks a church, we expressed them in forthright fashion.

Time will tell if he and the other powerbrokers at Ravenhill got it right over Brian McLaughlin's impending departure as coach and Mark Anscombe's arrival in June, though there can be little argument that since taking up the ‘challenging' post of Director of Rugby four years ago, many decisions made by Humphreys have proved correct, especially in terms of recruitment with big name foreigners like Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa, Pedrie Wannenburg and Stefan Terblanche enticed to Belfast in recent years.

Next season prodigal sons Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson return.

Humphreys refutes the suggestion but given his reputation as a player and his standing in rugby circles, you do wonder how many would have pitched up at Ravenhill without his persuasive powers.

On the recruitment process which has to adhere to IRFU guidelines, he explains: “We target where we are short in the team. Once you see if you can afford a player, you speak to people who have played with him or against him or who have coached him and build up as big a picture as you can.

“Going to sell Belfast, Northern Ireland and the Ulster team to someone sitting on a beach in South Africa with the potential to go to Paris or London, it may seem a hard sell but when players see the vision we have here and you get them to buy into that, they want to be part of that story. Thankfully we haven't missed out on many we have targeted.”

Warming to the theme, Humphreys, a qualified lawyer, added: “When Brian McLaughlin came on board three years ago we sat down and put in foundations that were absolutely essential before you could even start talking about delivering success on the pitch.

“In truth a lot of that related to off the field stuff. Things weren't being done properly. Being a professional sportsman isn't just about what happens on the pitch, it's about what you do all day every day and to re-establish that we brought in players who epitomised everything that was what you wanted in professional sportsmen.

“We made a huge play that we were signing the person as much as the rugby player. We wanted people who could set an example, bring leadership and drive the team forward and for me everyone that has come has delivered on that. That has been one of the fundamental parts of our success. We now have this culture in our squad which is just right.”

Humphreys, who won 72 Irish caps and stopped playing for Ulster in 2008, admits winning the Heineken Cup this year would not beat his experience of 1999.

He says: “I won't get more satisfaction from winning it this year because the ultimate as a sportsman is to play. There's great pride with where we have taken Ulster and what is out on the pitch reflects that, but I would still say being a player winning the European Cup is better than being an administrator of the team who wins it. It might get close, but it won't be the same.”

First things first though — a semi-final to think about before a final at Twickenham against either Leinster or Clermont, who Humphreys believes are the two best sides in Europe.

“We've beaten Edinburgh twice this season but, at this stage, form, your previous meetings and the reputation of players count for nothing. You have to deliver on the day,” says the golf lover, who has a six handicap.

“The crowd will play an enormous part for us. With 35,000 to 40,000 Ulster fans in the stadium it will be a pretty intimidating environment for Edinburgh. They will try to use that to motivate themselves and they have some very good players, so if we are off our game at all they will win.

“I have no absolutely no doubt though that if this Ulster team goes to Dublin and performs the way it is capable of doing then we can win the game.”

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