When Ulster won rugby’s European Cup in 1999, they appeared to savour the success for something rather longer than ‘the moment’. Try years.
They went to sleep as champions and by the time they woke up they were way behind. But now there is a determination that, win or lose against Leinster at Twickenham on May 19, Ulster will not repeat the mistake of 13 years ago.
There are plans for significant developments on and off the pitch and the group at the heart of these is Ulster Rugby’s Professional Game Board, chaired by former North, Ulster and Ireland flanker Gordon Hamilton.
These apply to all levels of the game, those being the strands of one hopefully strong red and white rope.
“What I see as my role is making sure that we stay up here now,” he says, before going on to underline the importance of having prepared properly for the days post-Muller, Pienaar and Afoa.
“We have hired very cleverly from overseas, but that’s through (only) to 2014,” Hamilton points out. “So we need to start now.
“In fact, we’ve started; there’s good work being done, but we really need to intensify the effort to sustain us on beyond when these great guys leave us.
“We are charged with helping manage and develop the professional game in Ulster which, unavoidably, is linked into the domestic game — from minis, right through to schools, to under-age clubs to clubs themselves and what they’re doing.
“But it is all in the national interest and really, in a nutshell, what we want to be doing is getting as many Ulster players on the Irish team as possible. That would mean that we’re playing well which would make Dublin very happy as we’d be producing future players for Ireland.
“But in that scenario you lose guys to autumn internationals, you lose them to the Six Nations and every four years you lose them to the World Cup.
“So I think it’s all about a balance and I think Dublin recognise how important it is to have the Irish provinces performing strongly in the PRO12 and Heineken (Cup), not at the expense of the national team, of course. But to get that balance right we need to be competitive in those competitions, so we need some additional support from overseas — international-class players — and not only to compete in those.
“It can’t be argued that those South Africans haven’t been good for our young guys. It isn’t just about what they’re doing for the players round them; it’s what they’re doing for the younger guys, it’s about how they inspire young people.
“My kids come home and talk about these fellows all the time — they want to be the next Johann or Pienaar.”
Highlighting those Springboks’ influence for good in the community he continues: “You ask the people on a Sunday who listen to these fellows speaking to them in church, or in youth clubs. They didn’t expect to be going to a youth club and meeting Johann Muller or Ruan Pienaar, but there they were. The contribution those guys have made off the pitch probably matches what they have contributed on it. It has been remarkable and I think it has been good for Northern Ireland — but I’m biased! How do we move this forward?” is his recurring question with regard to Ulster’s current status.
The answer? Developing young indigenous players and producing ever-more good quality coaches to work with them. At that he brings Brian McLaughlin’s name into the conversation.
“You can’t wait for us to fall off the perch before you do something,” he says. “You’ve got to do it now and Brian is the best guy to do that. Initially he is disappointed (at losing his job as Ulster’s head coach) but I’m hoping he will clearly see that he has an absolutely critical role.
“I would argue that his role with schools is almost more critical than the role he’s in at the moment. That might sound completely weird, but if we’re going to be self-sufficient going forward — producing seven, eight, nine players for the Irish team — we’ve got to invest more in our under-age.”
The Board he chairs believes help and support for schools and the province’s clubs’ under-age teams is central to rugby’s structured development. Particularly with the aim being to increase the number currently playing the game from 29,000 to 45,000.
“We’re very light on developing players outside the main schools’ system,” Hamilton points out. But that’s all about to change.