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Five key tasks facing Ulster Rugby this summer

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Having beaten Ospreys to secure their place in next season's Champions Cup, Ulster were at least able to end arguably the most challenging season in their history on a high note.

There are still, however, some key issues facing the side before their first pre-season hit out against Gloucester in August.

What five things do Ulster need to make sure they get right over the summer months? We take a look at them right here:

1. Secure a starting date for Dan McFarland

When Ulster last found themselves on the hunt for someone to head up their coaching ticket, it was in the summer of 2014 when Mark Anscombe was given the boot.

The Kiwi left Belfast suddenly, shortly after Director of Rugby David Humphreys announced that he'd be on his way to Gloucester.

The man ultimately chosen to replace Anscombe, in role if not in title, was Ireland's defence coach Les Kiss.

Yet the Australian did not arrive in a permanent capacity until November of 2015, a gap of 16 full months.

While the waters were muddied somewhat by the fact that Ulster came closer to winning silverware in the supposed holding period than they have done at any point since, such a gap will always feel like a write-off.

With Kiss having left in January, quickly to be followed by Jono Gibbes, Ulster have already secured their replacement in Scottish forwards coach Dan McFarland, but exactly when he arrives remains uncertain.

The SRU, no doubt irked by the timing of the news, have insisted McFarland will be made to work his notice until January of 2019.

If that were to happen, the new season will be compromised from the very beginning. With Ulster having such recent experience themselves of the drawbacks of waiting around, if some sort of compensation deal isn't arranged to get McFarland here this summer, it will seem little has been learnt from past mistakes.

2. Decide upon their perfect ten

When Paddy Jackson took over the ten jersey at the back end of 2012, it seemed that Ulster had their out-half for the next decade already in place.

The Irish international last represented the province more than a year ago now, and in March had his contract revoked after being found not guilty of all charges during a high-profile rape trial.

In rugby terms, replacing his talents within the framework of what is or isn't allowed by the IRFU bosses was always likely to be impossible. Christian Leali'ifano came and went, Stephen Donald signed but never arrived, and the season finished with the impressive but inexperienced Johnny McPhillips running operations.

At the very least, more depth is required. Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt wants Joey Carbery playing regular rugby at ten in the build-up to next year's World Cup in Japan, something that hasn't happened at Leinster.

Carbery's first preference seems to be to stay in Dublin, but Munster are also thought to be interested, a move which in turn would produce a surplus in Limerick.

Ulster have also explored the possibility of signing a foreign ten, and it is understood that the IRFU blocked an attempt to sign Springbok Elton Jantjies, giving rise to the possibility that the Kingspan Stadium outfit may just go with McPhillips knowing that, between him and Michael Lowry, there are at least prospects to back. Whoever it is, a decision needs to be taken soon.

3. Get the fans back on their side

While there were a number of mitigating factors at play, it was striking to see the fans stay away in such large numbers from such an important game at Kingspan Stadium on Sunday.

A short lead-in time, season tickets not being valid and a plethora of other events on over the weekend no doubt played their part, but there were certainly a group who didn't attend out of a sense of disillusionment.

Having made something of a rod for his own back with initial lofty ambitions, Shane Logan is by some distance the most talked about CEO in Irish Rugby and has become a lightning rod for supporters.

Despite some achievements in the role, an apparent media blackout hardly helped his cause during a tough winter, and the odd "Logan Out" banner in the usually friendly confines of Kingspan Stadium were further bad PR.

How much on-the-field change would be effected by a new man at the very top remains up for debate, especially when answerable to Dublin, but there are some who won't be happy until they see it.

If Logan is to walk away, a new CEO will be required. If not, bridges with sections of the fan base need to be rebuilt quickly.

Less than half-full stadiums can't become the norm.

4. Assess the injury list

With more going out than coming in this off-season, Ulster will obviously be dealing with a smaller squad than in previous years.

The province were barely an hour into their season when they lost No.8 Marcell Coetzee last term, the big-name Springbok having played five games in his two seasons in Belfast.

2018-05-11_spo_40852010_I1.png
Hopeful: Ulster's Marcell Coetzee is close to a comeback

After a string of knee surgeries, the crucial import says he is on track to be ready for pre-season, and whether Ulster can get a full season out of him will have huge bearing on the campaign.

Assessing the general health of the rest of the squad will also be key, especially if it is to force further consideration of reinforcements.

Both Louis Ludik and Luke Marshall suffered nasty injuries on Sunday, Jared Payne's move into coaching is expected but not yet confirmed, while Jean Deysel was another who ended the season in the treatment room.

5. Present a clear plan

When Les Kiss left his post in January, Operations Director Bryn Cunningham said Ulster were undertaking a strategic review of all structures to take the province forward.

At that time the discussions were in the tentative stages but, while some of the findings will no doubt be kept in-house, if it's not to be seen as a can-kicking exercise, some tangible results and changes will be expected.

It is no secret that, despite improved Academy output of late, the Ulster pathways have not produced enough players since the group that carried them to the 2012 Heineken Cup final, and a root and branch overhaul is required to put it right.

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