Ian Humphreys is set for a third Ravenhill stint
Ian Humphreys is on his way back to Ulster following two seasons with Aviva Premiership club London Irish. He has signed a two-year contract.
It is the second time that the outside-half, who turned 32 a fortnight ago, has returned to his native province following stints with top flight outfits in England. His older brother, David, played a huge part in both cases.
Although he had captained Ulster at under-21 level, the younger sibling's hopes of progressing at senior level in 2005 were stymied by the performances of his brother, who was still firmly entrenched at that stage.
That resulted in Ian joining Leicester Tigers, with whom he spent three seasons during which he made 18 appearances and scored 125 points.
He then re-joined Ulster when his brother retired at the end of the 2007-08 season and quickly established himself as the province's first-choice 10.
But the capture of South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar in 2010, followed by the emergence of teenage protégé Paddy Jackson in the latter stages of the 2011-12 campaign combined to see Humphreys dethroned as Ulster's goal-kicking king and principal play-maker.
Despite the fact that Humphreys played a major part in guiding Ulster to the quarter-finals for the first time since 1999 – he scored all of his side's points in their 16-11 pool-stage victory over Clermont Auvergne – Jackson had surpassed him by the time the latter stages came round. In the semi-final against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium, Humphreys was an unused substitute, Jackson having played for all 80 minutes.
And the wisdom of his decision to move on and to join London Irish – a year before his Ulster contract expired – was confirmed when then-coach Brian McLaughlin left him out of the starting line-up for the Heineken Cup final against Leinster at Twickenham, although he was introduced after 46 minutes.
With two years of his contract remaining, news of his return to Belfast came out of the blue, not least because during his absence, Jackson has made rapid progress, winning nine Irish caps which include four in the Six Nations Championship-winning campaign.
Full international recognition having eluded Humphreys, it is ironic that his rival's emergence at that level opened the door for a return to Ulster.
The homeward-bound out-half said: "I am realistic. I know that Paddy Jackson is one of the best young players in Ireland, but I am competitive. It is up to me to push him."
Speaking in his capacity as Ulster's Director of Rugby, Humphreys' brother David said: "With Paddy Jackson playing an increasingly important role with Ireland, Ian gives us another option at fly-half, something which is important if the team is going to be successful in the future."
And highlighting what his sibling is able to offer, he said: "With more than 60 appearances in the Premiership and over 100 caps for Ulster, Ian brings significant experience to our squad."
As for what factors persuaded him to re-join Ulster, Humphreys junior explained: "I have loved my time at London Irish but when the unexpected opportunity to come home arose, it was a very easy decision to make.
"It's exciting to be part of a squad that's challenging in Europe and is at the top of the Pro12 every year.
"As well as a strong team, Ravenhill has been transformed since I left two years ago. Everyone in the Premiership has heard about it. It is just phenomenal how good the new stadium is."
With Jackson likely to be absent on international duty in the next two seasons and current understudy, James McKinney, on his way to Rotherham, there was an important gap to be filled. In signing Ian Humphreys, Ulster have gone back to the future.
* THE hearing into the dismissal of Ulster loose-head Tom Court will take place before an independent PRO12 disciplinary committee at noon today in Wales.
Ireland and Lions prop Court, who is joining London Irish this summer, was given a red card by referee Luke Pearce following an alleged 'spear' tackle on Leinster lock Devin Toner 16 minutes into last Friday night's inter-pro clash at the newly-opened Ravenhill.