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David Humphreys: In a ruthless business always sensed the crucial need to stay one step ahead

By Michael Sadlier

As a player he was largely renowned for his attention-grabbing abilities, as well as having a penchant for staying one step ahead of marauding tacklers, and now, as a director of rugby, David Humphreys has shown those same deft touches to break his ties with Ulster.

Saturday afternoon's announcement that the 42 year-old is to be the new director of rugby at Gloucester was seismic in its impact and for shock value was out there on its own at the end of a week which had already seen the expected retirement of Stephen Ferris and the also previously flagged intention of rebranding the iconic Ravenhill into what has become the Kingspan Stadium.

Indeed, it was left to Ulster Rugby's Chief Executive Shane Logan to host a hastily assembled media briefing at the freshly named stadium to provide some soundbites in a damage limitation exercise that had an unmistakable undercurrent of dismay at Humphreys's decision to leave home province after 22 years of involvement as player and key administrator.

Logan made it known that the widely held assumption that Humphreys was as close to a permanent fixture as Ulster's director of rugby was never exactly cast in stone and that the man who played 162 times for Ulster and won 72 Ireland caps was always an attractive prospect out in the fevered professional marketplace.

Still, his departure is a bitter blow for Ulster Rugby no matter how it is dressed up as Humphreys, more than anyone in the organisation, is rightly associated with overseeing the club's rise from serial underachievers to a side capable of challenging for, if not actually winning, top honours.

The fact that this transformation has taken place over the six years that he has been involved as an administrator – he unexpectedly became operations director in 2008 not long after retiring from playing – is not coincidental. Ulster needed Humphreys to bring them structure and direction and he has made his mark.

However, for all the progress made in the key competitions and in the signing of top quality overseas playing personnel there was an unavoidable feeling that this season marked the end of one phase and the starting point of what needed to be a new evolution in the club's direction.

Pivotal players have either retired or moved on while Kiwi coach Mark Anscombe was only granted a one year extension on his contract which has more than hinted at his exit next June.

Somewhere within the mix, Humphreys also made his mind up that now is the time to try his hand at Gloucester, another club eager to regain form and competitiveness in the English Premiership in a situation not too dissimilar from that which prevailed at Ulster six years ago.

With Ulster facing into the beginnings of a substantial restructure and the always possible accompanying dip in form, after four years of making the Heineken Cup knockout stages, Humphreys seems to have judged that he has journeyed far enough with his home province and that yet another season without silverware – Ulster have lost two successive PRO12 finals and a Heineken Cup final in 2012 and all to southern rivals Leinster – would therefore prove damaging to his reputation and obvious ambitions.

And there was also the possibility that the next move in Ulster's oft-quoted plan to be globally recognised force just might involve the notion that the next coach –who now surely must be a high profile figure with accompanying pedigree – just might also be anointed as the director of rugby without the current two-tier structure that has Mark Anscombe working as a pure coach but under Humphreys.

On the field, Humphreys's talent while a player was clear to see and even though some inconsistency in the green shirt of Ireland ultimately cost him a regular starting place to Ronan O'Gara, his performances for Ulster were rarely anything but top drawer.

After a sojourn at London Irish, with former Ulster coach and now Saracens director Mark McCall, Humphreys returned to Ulster in the late 90s along with close friend McCall and the out-half played a central role in the march towards lifting the European Cup in January 1999.

He also enjoyed success with the province in winning the Celtic Cup 2003 before dramatically kicking the late drop goal to secure the Celtic League in 2006 which, incidentally, was the last time Ulster won a trophy.

He limped out of rugby in May 2008 when his already injured ankle gave way early on in the game against Cardiff Blues at Ravenhill and despite the intended pursuit of a legal career he was back at Ulster shortly afterwards in a newly created post as operations director – coaching was never really an intention.

Humphreys brought in Brian McLaughlin as the new head coach after the sudden departure of Australian Matt Williams in summer 2009, and began the process of rebuilding Ulster's damaged reputation as a side worthy of attention with the full backing from the IRFU.

He became director of rugby in another off-field restructure in 2010 and clocked up the air miles to make two of Ulster's most notable signings in persuading Springboks Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar to relocate to Belfast.

Progress was quickly made, particularly in the key battleground of Europe, and with Logan on board as a CEO with a big vision, Ulster seemed to be going places.

Humphreys kept a low profile as the man pulling the strings regarding the squad's make-up and rapidly forged a reputation as a skilful operator though not necessarily a person who could comfortably operate in the media's glare.

The infamous Press conference he so awkwardly hosted in early 2012 regarding the shock removal of McLaughlin as Ulster coach showed a rare naivete on his part but was not repeated.

He was, though, always aware of his fallibility and that the ruthless nature shown to McLaughlin – who got Ulster to a Heineken Cup final for his last game in charge – could just as easily rebound on himself and particularly so now that Europe is increasingly being dominated by the big spending French clubs.

Ultimately, though, Humphreys had still not masterminded the next crucial step in Ulster's story; the winning of a competition.

With Leinster still dominating the PRO12 and the vast resources at Toulon's disposal effectively closing the door on sides with substantially smaller budgets such as Ulster, Humphreys presumably sensed that the timing was right for him to go.

Ulster's loss looks like it could well be Gloucester's gain. As ever, though, he's intent on trying to stay that one step ahead.

Belfast Telegraph


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