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Lack of quality personnel proves Ulster are spent force

By George Hook

The results in the European Champions Cup this weekend were very much as expected. However, Ulster's performance in Toulon was not on anybody's radar. How then, even allowing for no prospect of progression from the pool, Toulon at home and injury disruptions, were the men in white humiliated?

To survive in modern day competition in rugby as in soccer, buying foreign talent is crucial. Thus in the first instance, Ulster were simply outspent by Toulon and the result was a fait accompli. It will only get worse.

The heady days when All Blacks and Springboks headed for this green and pleasant isle may be over as the big bucks are elsewhere.

Ireland and in turn its constituent teams are now playing a different game from their competitors. Toulon and Clermont in France and Harlequins and Wasps in England are playing a game of movement, off-loading and wide attack that is beyond the wit of provincial coaches and players.

To create that kind of game we need out-halves to orchestrate the performance.

Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley simply are not up to international standard and cannot control territory.

The standout performer, Jonny Sexton, is abroad and more importantly doubtful for the Six Nations.

Domestically, Ulster's descent into European rugby irrelevance began with the mass exodus at the Kingspan last summer.

The departure of David Humphreys from his front-line post should have sent alarm bells ringing among the Kingspan faithful.

But rather than recruit with any meaningful intent, Ulster rugby drifted along in a catastrophic period of denial, where deficiencies in personnel were glossed over in favour of artificial optimism.

The break-up of last year's squad should have sent shock waves throughout province. Losing one or two key players was unfortunate, but to lose several, without sufficient reinforcements, was careless in the extreme.

No club side could stand to lose players of the calibre of Johann Muller, John Afoa, Stephen Ferris, Tom Court and Paddy Wallace without suffering a dramatic slump in form.

Ulster's meek surrender in Toulon on Saturday was difficult to stomach. It is difficult to argue that the Ulster of last season would have capitulated and folded to the same extent in European competition.

The changes in coaching personnel have taken their toll.

Mark Anscombe's departure might have been slightly better received if a viable alternative had been sought from the outset. Instead, Ulster were treated to a stop-gap, lazy appointment in Les Kiss, before his departure to the Ireland camp prematurely catapulted Neil Doak to head coach.

Ulster's problems extend beyond a one-off trouncing at the hands of the current European champions. The missed tackles and poor discipline that underlined Saturday's defeat go some way towards explaining the mindset of the current squad.

The heavy toll of losses in personnel has definitely had an effect on the players.

Those who remain don't seem to have the same capacity for success as their darted predecessors and the talent that is coming through the academy system is incapable of bridging the gap.

Now, with a brand new stadium at their disposal and infrastructure to rival any other side in club rugby, it remains to be seen if Ulster Rugby has the stomach for the fight back.

If the current situation is left unresolved, the journey back to competitiveness may be a long and expensive one.

Belfast Telegraph

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