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It's time for Ulster's big men to lead from the front

Inspiration from within is the only way to answer critics, says Rainey

By Niall Crozier

Following a summer of upheaval, one of the most respected personalities in Ulster rugby circles has stressed the importance of a good start to the 2014-15 season which opens on Saturday with a Guinness PRO12 game against Scarlets in Llanelli.

Philip Rainey – full-back in the all-conquering Ballymena and Ulster teams of the 1980s and nowadays an occasional radio pundit – wants to see the senior players lead by example in the wake of the departures of director of rugby David Humphreys, head coach Mark Anscombe and captain Johann Muller.

In addition to that trio having gone for one reason or another, so too have John Afoa, Tom Court, Sean Doyle, Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace, Niall Annett, Adam Macklin, Paddy McAllister, James McKinney, Chris Farrell, Ian Porter, David McIlwaine and Chris Cochrane.

The newcomers brought in to replace those players are Franco van der Merwe, Louis Ludik, Wiehahn Herbst, Sean Reidy, Ian Humphreys, Ruaidhri Murphy, Dave Ryan, Charlie Butterworth and Clive Ross.

So, much change. But not all change. And in the always-considered opinion of Rainey, who weighs his words as carefully as he used to measure his goal-kicks, tackles, line incursions and chips into space against opposing defensive lines, hence his nickname 'Chipper', therein lies cause for some optimism on the eve of a new season.

"I think it's going to be an interesting start to the campaign," he said.

"Obviously there has been a lot of flux and there are a lot of unanswered questions following that whole Humph-Anscombe situation, so the only thing that will see the dust settle is for Ulster to produce good performances on the park.

"I think people are waiting to see what happens when it starts for real.

"Friendly matches are wonderful things and certainly against Exeter and Leinster they were able to expose a lot of young players.

"But how they go in the heat of battle against Scarlets, Zebre and Cardiff in the first couple of weeks will give people a better measure of where we are at this stage.

"I know we've lost players but there's a lot of experience still there," he pointed out. "These guys are professionals so they've seen coaches and colleagues come and go before.

"Now from a Northern Ireland person's viewpoint, this summer has seen a number of radical things happen, so people are probably sitting back thinking, 'Oh goodness, this is going to be disaster alley'.

"But you've got to bear in mind that these players – certainly the senior guys – have been through change before so they know the bottom line is that they still have to go out and perform. The onus is going to be on those experienced, mature players to set aside what has happened in the past two years.

"In the past two years the expectation was that Ulster would win silverware. Unfortunately that didn't happen, so the senior players now have got to home in on their experiences and basically say to the others, 'Look guys, things have changed here; we've got a new structure and we have to move on'.

Rainey added: "My only concern is that we don't know how permanent this new structure is, so that's something that has to be very carefully nursed through the next month or two.

"We've been told Les Kiss is there on a sort of temporary basis and there has been mention of one or two southern hemisphere coaches possibly coming in – Jake White or someone like that – to be a key, head person in taking Ulster forward.

"But I think the key issue at the moment has to be the leadership coming from the players, the experienced ones who can say to the young cubs, 'Look, set this aside; we've got to deliver. The coach can set a direction but at the end of the day it's up to us to perform on the park'.

"Fair enough, there's no Muller, there's no Afoa. But there's still bloody good players in their place and I think Ulster can settle all this down by producing a few good results in the first month. I don't know that it's going to be as difficult as some think it's going to be but, as always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

"The talk on the street is 'We've built the stadium; now we've got to deliver on the pitch'.

"I'd just say that Ulster are in a unique position – we have a fantastic stadium and a fantastic set of supporters who want and wish success on the team. So it's important the players remember that and don't panic.

"A few wins early on – success on the park – would help the players settle down and put the supporters' minds at ease, too.

"Those supporters' reaction to a few victories would be, 'It's still an interim because we still don't quite know what the blueprint is and we're not sure what Ulster's structure is meant to be in terms of going forward. But hey, it works, because we're getting results!'

"That would provide a great platform for whatever this great big blueprint is going to be."

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