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Cunningham outlines Ulster's path to progress in 'opportunity' of a fresh start


By Jonathan Bradley

After a tumultuous week, Ulster Operations Manager Bryn Cunningham addressed the assembled media at Kingspan Stadium yesterday to outline how the province will move forward following Director of Rugby Les Kiss' departure.

The former Ireland defence coach was relieved of his duties last Wednesday, with Cunningham confirming that more than change in the coaching box is required.

A strategic review of the organisation at all levels is already under way, and the former full-back and European Cup winner offered a dose of realism after previous proclamations from Chief Executive Shane Logan in 2010 that any plan put in place "has to deliver Ulster (to) being top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and indeed the world".

Cunningham, who joined the side as Team Manager in 2014, four years after calling time on a playing career that encompassed 150 outings for the province, admitted a changing landscape means it's time for a different approach.

"I came into a strategy (that was) then a couple of years in, and was largely based around a group of players which was very strong," he said.

"That strategy was placed around being the world's best. I think you've got to have a lot of ambition and that can occasionally be misinterpreted that we needed to be literally the best club side in the world.

"That's not really what that was about, it was about being the best (we could be) in every facet of the game both on and off the field.

"I think we've had a chance to sit back and look at what's important now and where we are, take stock and almost have a bit of realism about exactly where we are.

"We've got to be optimistic and positive about moving forward but also appreciate where we are, the restrictions we have, and the player pull that we've got in comparison to a Leinster for example.

"We've got to mark ourselves about where we are right now and what we need to do going forward and that's taking a bird's eye view of the whole place and not just about the pro team and what's not right there.

"It's about looking at how we can get more school players of a high enough quality through into the academy and develop the academy to make them even better."

While one would hope the plans are not quite so simplistic, a large aspect of what Cunningham spoke of yesterday, while admitting that it was too soon to go into more specific detail, amounted to restoring pride in the Ulster jersey.

"There is a change now and as far as we are concerned it is an opportunity. I think the way we are looking at it is a chance to almost start from the foundations again and build back up again," he said.

"It is an opportunity to kind of look at our traditions, our history and what is important to Ulster Rugby, what is important for supporters and stakeholders to see on the pitch.

"We have got to start trying to deliver a level of consistency week in and week out. We have shown that we can play particularly well in patches but sometimes our performances have really let ourselves down.

"It is making sure we get those fundamental things in place and the type of characteristics we had to see in players, that competitiveness, that energy, enthusiasm and with that comes performances. That is what we are really focusing on moving forward."

Moving forward without Kiss too of course, with head coach Jono Gibbes now set to take on more responsibility. Is it safe to assume then that three roles - those of Director of Rugby, Operations Director and Head Coach - will be merged back into two, as they were last in the days of David Humphreys and Mark Anscombe?

"I am definitely not David Humphreys," Cunningham joked before agreeing with the broader assessment.

"I suppose in some ways, yes, the structure will fall more like that and will allow Jono Gibbes the opportunity to focus on the rugby.

"I will effectively oversee the professional game but we will very much carve it into those two distinct parts. I will look after all off-field matters and Jono will be very much in charge of team selection, training, on-field performance."

Confirming that if another coach is sought in the summer it will be to fill a defensive brief rather than assume the mantle of Kiss, he continued: "I think that is where we are right now at this moment. It is important Jono does not have to worry about a lot of other off-field things."

In the more immediate future, Ulster are back in action this weekend, taking on Southern Kings at home on Friday night (7.35pm kick-off).

Luke Marshall, having appeared for the A team and Ballymena in recent weeks, is in contention for a first senior game since October.

Craig Gilroy, meanwhile, has recovered from the fractured cheekbone he sustained last month, although fellow wings Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble are still out injured.

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