Ulster need total revamp after Kiss reign that was short on romance: Neil Best
Former Ulster and Ireland flanker Neil Best believes the coming weeks must be used to take stock of where the province now stands.
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With the news on Wednesday evening that Director of Rugby Les Kiss would be severing his ties with the Kingspan Stadium outfit with 18 months still to run on his contract, the silverware-starved side are again in a state of flux.
While the Australian's mid-season exit was hardly a bombshell, and had been long mooted since results took a downward turn this winter, his departure after failure to get the best out of the squad raises as many questions as it answers.
While a review of the organisation's structures is already underway, all that has been announced to date is that Jono Gibbes, previously working under Kiss but with the title of head coach, will head up a ticket containing incumbents Dwayne Peel, Aaron Dundon and Niall Malone, while Bryn Cunningham has power over all "off-field matters", an area that includes recruitment.
With Gibbes and Cunningham now in more easily-defined roles, Best, who has previously been a vocal critic of Kiss, believes that a more thorough examination of the province's failings is still required even after what has been described as the amicable split between the team and its head man.
"I think in the short term on-field there is an opportunity for Jono Gibbes to show his worth and get the best out of the current squad," said the 18-times-capped Irish international.
"Strategic planning over a three-year cycle needs to address squad profile and balance, factoring in what may be produced from the Academy over that period. Expectations need to be managed as well that the turnaround will not happen overnight.
"And, whilst I think it was the right decision to move Les Kiss on, I fear without additional change above his level some of the poor decision making that has held the club back will continue to happen."
It is already believed that the province are mulling over a return to the model adopted during the time of David Humphreys and Mark Anscombe when the position of Director of Rugby involved far less on-field matters and with the head coach given more freedom in selections and training, but Best adds that it is the blend of personalities that will be key.
Recent seasons have been rife with talk of varying degrees of disharmony over job roles.
"The structure isn't the problem, the way it was being worked has been," he said.
"If you get the right combination of coaches involved you will find the focus is no longer on the structure."
With Kiss having arrived in 2015, after an initial stint that saw him oversee matters after the abrupt nature of the twin departures of Humphreys and Anscombe in the summer of the year prior, it was hoped that the former Ireland defence coach would be the man to end a silverware drought that stretches back to the Celtic League title in 2006, back when Best was a player.
While there have been a host of missed opportunities since, including the 2012 Heineken Cup decider and PRO12 final a year later, the province played no knock-out rugby last season for the first time since 2010, and have already exited the Champions Cup during this campaign.
"I don't think it's easy to put a finger on when the current decline and malaise took hold, which is why it's sometimes difficult for those on the inside to realise that's the situation in which the club finds itself," added Best, who has developed a host of fans on social media for opinions as forthright as his playing style.
"Certainly, many fans would point to the last 'high' as Brian McLaughlin taking Ulster to the Heineken Cup final of 2012, and the decline beginning with the home quarter-final loss to Saracens in 2014 in Mark Anscombe's final season. Unlike Les Kiss, both McLaughlin and Anscombe were dispensed with despite good results."
While the purported grounds for those departures is well trodden at this stage, Best sees a squad that will require a continued overhaul, after recent imports have failed to hit the heights of previous big names, while the Academy production line has lagged behind southern neighbours in recent seasons.
While the likes of Nick Timoney and Mattie Rea - as well as Jacob Stockdale who has achieved so much already it is easy to forget he's just 21 - have been bright points of another disappointing season, too often they have felt like exceptions to the rule.
The early returns from Willie Anderson and Kieran Campbell's work with underage players has been encouraging, and there is a healthy representation in tonight's Ireland under-20s Six Nations opener, but it is crucial that continues apace to make up for years of fallow production.
Similarly, with Ruan Pienaar gone, Charles Piutau leaving and Marcell Coetzee's fitness still with a question mark, recruitment will be watched with keen interest.
"There is no doubt that Ulster have some exceptional players, particularly in the backline, and no shortage of experience," summarised Best.
"But the squad isn't balanced, the pack has been lightweight for a number of seasons and there seems to be an inability to dominate and bully opponents up front.
"That is where recruitment and NIQs come into play, but decision making has been poor in both these areas. And some of the younger forwards now coming through could easily have been brought through at an earlier stage.
"There are a core group of players who have been hugely important to the club over the last decade but they are no longer able to perform at the same level.
"Regrettably, some may have to be moved on or let go at the end of this season. There can be no place for undue sentiment in professional sport."
While one big question has been answered this week, so many more remain.
Ulster Rugby, they're never boring.