Ulster paid price for their Celtic League win
In the final part of an exclusive interview, Justin Harrison tells Rugby Correspondent Gavin Mairs where Ulster have gone wrong and how to fix the problem
Published 05/05/2008 | 09:33
Justin Harrison believes the seeds of Ulster's downfall over the last 18 months were sown in the province's moment of glory when Mark McCall's side lifted the Celtic League trophy in May 2006.
Harrison, capped 34 times for Australia, was Ulster's captain when the province defeated the Neath/Swansea Ospreys in the thrilling final game of the season to clinch the title.
With Simon Best sidelined with an ankle injury, Harrison, who is set to depart for Bath at the end of this season after three years at Ravenhill, continued to lead the province for the start of the 2006/07 season.
Expectations were sky-high that the province would kick on from their Celtic League win and reach the Heineken Cup knock-out stages for the first time since 1999. And at first Ulster did not disappoint, romping to a 30-3 victory over three-times champions Toulouse at Ravenhill.
But it proved to be a brilliant but utterly misleading display.
Harrison has thought long and hard about Ulster's collapse of form soon after, which ultimately led to the resignation of Mark McCall in November 2007.
With new coach Matt Williams currently working hard to address the situation and get Ulster upwardly mobile once again, Harrison admits he didn't see the nose-dive coming at the time.
"There was no evidence from the previous season because our form was good when we clinched the Celtic League title," said Harrison.
"But looking back, we didn't really kick on and build on that success while the other teams all improved both on and off the field.
"Perhaps the first signs came as early as the second half against Toulouse, when we failed to kick on and get a bonus point.
"From then on we lost our way a little bit and got ahead of ourselves and started to try and play a different style of game.
"We started to disrespect possession and started to try to add things to our game and some players started to try to do things other than what had got them there in the first place.
"Individuals who had always been running hard and straight and making tackles, started to look for passes or run sideways or off-load in contact.
"Trying to add to their skillset only served to confuse things whereas all we needed was the basic, boring rugby which had worked so well for us in winning the Celtic League - getting over the gain line within two or three passes and then consolidating it.
"That worked for us against Toulouse as most of our tries actually came off just a few phases. It was simple stuff but we got away from that and started to try to play high-phase, high-retention rugby.
"Given the conditions and the rush defences in the northern hemisphere, you end up just getting caught behind the advantage line. We lost our way and then couldn't get back on track. And there is no doubt the players under-performed and I under-performed."
As the results dried up, the pressure increasingly built up on McCall, both from within sections of the squad and from supporters and the media.
Assistant coach Allen Clarke had already been moved to a new role within the IRFU during the summer and when Gloucester cruised to a humiliating 32-14 victory in the first home game in the Heineken Cup earlier this season, McCall admirably fell on his sword.
Harrison admits McCall struggled at times with the confrontational nature of being a head coach, but felt his departure was a big loss to Ulster Rugby.
"The way that Mark went was disappointing and highlights a lack of professionalism in some areas of the organisation," added Harrison.
"Mark became extremely uncomfortable in his role of head coach. He is a very good coach, very knowledgeable about rugby and astute in identifying player skill-levels and devising a style of game. But in the end his nature as a nice guy who didn't like confrontation got the better of him.
"Some people in the playing squad influenced some of his decisions and in the end he didn't have autonomy as a coach. He had too many other things that he had to worry about other than being head coach.
"That was wrong for a new and young coach who should have been part of the coaching future of Ulster and Irish rugby.
"When I first arrived I thought Smally (McCall) and Clarkey (Clarke) were fantastic new coaches who would work through together as a great team progress to the national team.
"It is disappointing that he is lost to Irish rugby now. He and Clarkey are Ulstermen through and through and that commitment is priceless.
"I know Mark is going well at Castres and perhaps he is more comfortable being a specialist coach as part of a well-constructed team."
So what of the future for Ulster Rugby? Can the glory days return?
Harrison is impressed so far at what Williams has brought to the set-up and believes the new signings - BJ Botha, Clint Schifcofske, Robbie Diack, Ed O'Donoghue and Cillian Willis, with a big-name wing to follow - will make a significant impact next season.
But although he will never forget the compassion shown to him by the collective Ulster Rugby fraternity during the dark times of the break-up of his marriage, Harrison believes the organisation must look to the ACT Brumbies, who soared from their introduction to the Super 12 in 1996 to become champions in 2001, for inspiration about how to claw back their status in Irish and European rugby.
"I was a foundation member of the Brumbies," added Harrison. " I saw it start from the beginning when we had a small staff, smaller than at Ravenhill; we all worked hard together and went places. The players had an input into everything and every department on and off the field worked hard to improve themselves each season.
"Ulster is like an early Brumbies. We played at Bruce Stadium which got crowds of 12,000 to 15,000 and we took on the Queensland Reds and the New South Wales Waratahs who were the strengths of Australian rugby. It is really similar to here with Munster and Leinster. Let's take them on and get our players in the national set-up.
"When we won the Super 12 at the Brumbies, we asked ourselves: 'How could we change again? How could we get better?' We have to expose ourselves to red to get black as good as it could be."
With the IRFU currently reviewing the governance of the provinces, Harrison believes it is time for everyone in Ulster Rugby to raise the bar.
"I have a huge amount of respect for what Ulster have achieved in the past and an absolute belief that it is possible again," said Harrison. " Unfortunately all of the rhetoric and all of the tension has been focused on the playing personnel only. They need to look carefully at the entire picture at Ulster Rugby as a business model and a professional organisation.
"I don't know everything and it might look like I am looking down and casting judgement. I'm not. I want what is best for Ulster because I genuinely care about it. It would be easier for me to go quietly if I didn't care.
"Ulster Rugby needs to confront the horrible truth that the squads of the top 10 teams in the Heineken Cup are far and away better than Ulster's.
"It looks like the players who are coming will fill the areas where we are weak but I just think that all the good organisations that I have been in are always looking for continual improvement on and off the field. You just need a clear direction and identity of what we are trying to achieve.
"The Ulster business community wants to be involved because they care about the product, not because they want kudos or enforce any decisions but because they want to help. But if we accept millions we have to perform like millionaires."