Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Ulster Rugby get set to begin life after unforeseen changes

Big changes: Ulster chief Shane Logan (left) with Kingspan managing director Pat Freeman
Big changes: Ulster chief Shane Logan (left) with Kingspan managing director Pat Freeman

Ulster's first outing of 2014-15 is a Kingspan Stadium friendly against Exeter Chiefs on Friday, August 22. In the circumstances, it is timely to recall the words of 16th century theologian Richard Hooker whose statue stands outside Exeter Cathedral: "Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better."

Certainly there has been much change within Ulster in the close season, with the departures of the director of rugby, head coach and captain owing to a job switch, dismissal and retirement respectively.

Any one of those three developments in isolation would have been disruptive, but three of such importance in rapid succession has been massively 'inconvenient' and it remains to be seen just how much Ulster suffer as a result of it. Time alone will tell.

One cannot but conclude that the loss of David Humphreys, Mark Anscombe and Johann Muller is bound to have some repercussions, the most obvious of them being that although the coach and captain have been replaced by Les Kiss – in a still-to-be-defined interim role – and Rory Best respectively, Humphreys' job at the top of that all-important triangle is still vacant at this point.

One wonders whether Ulster persist with the DoR role or instead opt for the much more straightforward – and considerably less expensive – format whereby the job and that of the coach becomes one and the same?

Certainly that appears to work for French and European double-winning champions Toulon and PRO12 champions Leinster, among a great many others who include Munster and Connacht. Again one must ask why Ulster alone have operated a two-tier DoR-plus-head-coach system?

In addition to Muller, who has returned to his native South Africa to work on his family's farm, Ulster have suffered the loss of four other highly gifted and vastly experienced personnel in John Afoa, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace. Tight-head Afoa – a 2011 World Cup-winning All Black – joined Gloucester ahead of the switch by Humphreys with whom he now finds himself reunited. Interesting.

Loose-head Court – a 2009 Grand Slam winner who chalked up 154 Ulster appearances and got a fortuitous Lions call-up in 2013 – has joined London Irish.

In addition to those two huge front row 'hits', Ferris – a Lion and Grand Slam winner in 2009, – alas has been forced into retirement by injury. And Wallace – another member of that Grand Slam team – has retired after clocking up a record number of Ulster appearances.

Losing all four in one fell swoop leaves huge gaps to be filled, albeit that prolonged injury problems meant Ulster had become accustomed to life without Ferris or Wallace before both finally bowed out in June.

A la hooker, right now there are few Ulster supporters who feel that in terms of playing personnel, the changes will prove to have been a case of 'from worse to better'. The players' challenge is to prove that those fears were ill-founded. It is bad enough to be without a plethora of players when Irish duty calls, but at least in the Brian McLaughlin and Mark Anscombe reigns the coach remained with Ulster during the Guinness Series and Six Nations schedules. Not so this season. Interesting times ahead, methinks...

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