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Comment: Ulster's lack of direction is the most frustrating thing of all

By Jonathan Bradley

On a weekend when snow meant there was no rugby to play, Ulster must have wished the inclement weather had carried enough severity to scrub the entire season instead.

It's been storm rather than snow clouds brewing over Kingspan Stadium for months and when someone eventually comes to write the history of this once proud organisation, this campaign will have little competition for the chapter dubbed 'The Annus Horribilis'.

We've said, and indeed written, it before of course, but it was never meant to be like this. When last season's dead rubber against Leinster signalled the end of a campaign that brought no knockout rugby for the first time since 2010, it was deemed a time to reassess and rebuild with a fresh coaching ticket that was all change underneath then Director of Rugby Les Kiss.

In the months since, an abridged and vaguely chronological version of the struggles reads: marquee import departing for Bristol, second marquee import playing just one game thanks to yet more substantial surgery, one Irish international absent for the season thanks to headaches, two more entering into the home straight of the season without contracts in place for next year, fans told a former All Black was signed only to be injured before he even arrived, one deposed Director of Rugby and, as of yesterday, the man who assumed that mantle, head coach Jono Gibbes, heading for the exit door due to what were described as family reasons.

There are things far more important than sport, and the Kiwi should leave with best wishes in dealing with whatever those may be, but in a purely rugby sense it leaves anyone with a vested interest in this leakiest of ships wondering just what's next.

Should Kingspan Stadium have disappeared into a sinkhole by Monday morning, it would qualify as merely the next logical step.

For years now there's been accusations that the left hand remains blissfully unaware what the right is getting up to in the corridors of power, but it was still interesting to note that when approached for comment on a story of Gibbes' impending departure on Thursday morning, Ulster Rugby came back with a flat denial, that there had been fears Gibbes would follow Kiss (below) out the door after the man who brought him in last summer from French champions Clermont was axed, but that those concerns were in the past.

Less than 24 hours later, what hardly seemed a hastily assembled press release was landing in inboxes.

Given that when Ulster's team for a recent inter-pro became known some four days before kick-off, amid fears that a surprise selection for a young player would see him targeted, the solution was asking journalists nicely not to print the news rather than, say, curtains on a wall-to-wall windowed training facility, such an attitude to media doing their job should hardly be a surprise, nor indeed engender any kind of sympathy, but the misdirection doesn't end with the scribes.

Anyone thinking that Thursday's appeal for season ticket renewals that appeared in an email and on the side's official website was posted with no knowledge that the team's head coach for the year in question was persons unknown likely still thinks their chocolate in a few weeks' time comes hand-delivered by the Easter Bunny.

And while a 'price freeze' is in place, such a measure ignores the reality that not only does 2017's PRO14 restructuring mean fans could be paying the same money for fewer games, but that performances in a season that has seen the side beaten by at least 15 points on six separate occasions have left them fighting just to qualify for the Champions Cup.

Tickets are priced based on categories, with top tier status given to top tier European competition. Quite how that equates to the same final price should Ulster find themselves in the Challenge Cup remains to be seen. A fight for another day perhaps.

But it's no doubt something that will come up when Bryn Cunningham faces a group of season ticket holders next week. Again, it's the same man left to face the music. It's a gut feeling, but it certainly doesn't seem as if the former full-back is to blame for the malaise.

There have been misfires in the market for sure - when one recent signing wasn't fit to play for the Ulster second string this season, the opposition coaches were heard expressing their disappointment having seen him in the reverse fixture - but when Kiss made his exit, an Ulster statement read: "Operations Director Bryn Cunningham will manage the off-field operations of the professional team," with the implication being that had not previously always been the case.

Less prone to waffle than most, his frankness post-match shows how much he's hurt by goings on - one only hopes he is given the freedom to be part of the solution. There remains a feeling that it's not him who should be facing the music.

It was him that first spoke to the media six days after Kiss' departure and he will face another interrogation next week. When it comes to accountability, he can't be faulted - certainly not in an organisation that, after the latest hammering, sent video analyst Niall Malone to answer the questions for the second time in three games.

The public head of the organisation, Chief Executive Shane Logan, has had an ever-diminishing media presence as this season unravels, and there can be little doubt that many of the questions from fans would be better sent in the direction of a man who likely would have been required elsewhere had Ireland's 2023 World Cup bid been successful.

Chief among the questions, of course, is just who will be taking charge of this situation moving forward. Who, more pertinently, would want to be?

Since Mark Anscombe and David Humphreys' twin departure in 2014, the Ulster Rugby head job has been a CV killer.

Kiss was held in such high regard before his secondment northwards, but his time here leaves a good coach and decent man to rebuild his career back in the southern hemisphere.

Neil Doak too was, alongside Leinster coach Leo Cullen and the sadly departed Anthony Foley, seen as being at the forefront of a promising batch of indigenous Irish coaches before his promotion.

With the right scenario and the right support, the other pair made a success of their first leading gigs. Unfortunately, Doak found that when one man is given steak and the other fed baloney, Gordon Ramsey couldn't mask the difference.

Names like Tana Umaga and Daryl Gibson are already doing the rounds, while there'll be the obvious admiring glances sent the way of Ireland assistant Andy Farrell and Leinster's Stuart Lancaster.

Aside from that pair's own career ambitions, it's hard, having already sent Kiss to fix the mess, to see what the motivation would be for the IRFU to press for a move akin to rewarding the enfant terrible for wrapping the car around a lamppost again when the other three children have been driving responsibly.

It should be stressed that Gibbes leaves with every sympathy, and that this is an unwanted cherry on an already unpalatable cake when more serious matters are at play, but it is the lack of direction from a professional outfit that grates most and is part of a much wider picture in the same week fans have been asked to pay the same money for a diminishing product.

Stand up for the Ulstermen? Remember when they used to stand for something too?

Belfast Telegraph

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