Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Shifting sands leaving Ulster in a hard place

Another Monday morning, another soul-searching session for Ulster.

The experience of the 48-17 drubbing against the Neath/Swansea Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium on Friday night, to leave Ulster rooted firmly to the bottom of pool two, will no doubt be quickly erased from the memories of players and coaching staff.

But it will linger longer, like a black cloud, for those with a more detached view and concern for the future of Irish rugby.

The contrast between the two sides could not have been more stark.

Little over 18 months ago Ulster came to Swansea and won the Celtic League at what was the home of the then reigning champions.

It was an achievement that looked like the ultimate foundation stone for a new era of success for Ulster.

Expectation and optimism were sky high.

A new generation of young and largely home grown stars were announcing themselves on Irish rugby's stage. Next stop, Heineken Cup, was the cry.

Fast forward to last Friday's horror show and the landscape had changed beyond recognition.

Ulster arrived with confidence at an all-time low, lacking a permanent coach and direction.

The Ospreys, once again Magners League champions, in the interim had invested heavily in players, largely thanks to a couple of major benefactors and could virtually have fielded two starting XVs that would have given Ulster a hard time.

The Welsh region still have to prove themselves on the European stage, but having missed out narrowly last season on a try count, look equipped to push Gloucester all the way this term.

If not, they could well gain enough points to secure one of the two best-placed runners-up spots.

Played out in a setting that makes the facilities at Ravenhill look pre-historic and the overwhelming feeling was one of a dramatic power shift in Celtic rugby.

The Irish provinces, and Ulster in particular, are being left behind by the big-spending clubs in South Wales, with the Ospreys and Cardiff in particular raising the bar.

That feeling was only heightened on Saturday afternoon at Cardiff airport as the Ulster players mixed with players from the Cardiff Blues squad, who were bound for Paris to face Stade Francais.

The Cardiff squad, with their impressive sprinkling of overseas stars, looked upbeat and exuded an air of expectation.

In contrast, the Ulster players were no doubt hoping to find a magical fast-forward button to whizz to the end of this miserable campaign.

For Ulster there is no target in the sky to aim for. Only a painful existence that offers little hope at least in the short term.

In the longer term, you get the feeling that unless Irish rugby restructures itself to allow major private investment to come into the provincial structures, combined with a loosening of the self-imposed restrictions on overseas signings, the gap will only widen.

That is for another day. For now, caretaker coach Steve Williams, who deserves credit for making the best of an impossible situation, not least in remaining positive is such a dire situation, must attempt today to rally the troops once more after an eighth defeat in 11 games.

"We certainly have to take stock for a couple of days and learn the lessons because it wasn't quite happening for us on Friday night," said Williams. "Let's not pretend that it is something as simple as that.

"We have to learn the lessons and come again. There is no other option but to roll our sleeves up and carry on.

"As a coach, it is easy to say 'can I have him, him and him' but we have to go with what we have got and the lads really got stuck in. At least you couldn't question their commitment. They certainly got out-powered at times and probably in defence stood off them a little bit and allowed them to get up a head of steam and come at us at times.

"Those are lessons we certainly have to learn from Friday and I am sure there will be plenty of others when we sit down and look closely at the game. But they are a great bunch of lads and we have a lot to learn and it is important that we move forward."

Behind the scenes, forward momentum is crucial. The appointment of a new coach is now of an urgent nature to prevent the season completely unravelling.

The current void is not fair on the players or Williams himself, who has had to coach the team without knowing exactly where he stands. Then, and only then, can Ulster begin to rediscover themselves.

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