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Jonny Petrie: I'll focus on process to make Ulster better every day

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Jonny Petrie may have been fairly quiet over his two months in Ulster but the province's new Chief Executive has been hiding in plain sight since his December arrival.

Whether it be standing among fans on the terraces at a recent inter-pro, taking in a Schools' Cup and All-Ireland League game on the same Saturday a few weekends ago, or sitting in on various committee meetings, the former Scottish international has been getting to grips with rugby at all levels in his new home.

Perhaps aware of how often the refrain of "best side in the world" was repeated back to his predecessor Shane Logan, there were no grandiose projections of his vision when he met media for the first time yesterday.

"I think it's going to sound clichéd but you want to go in and try and make this place better every day," he said when asked of his goals. "There's no point making bold proclamations or saying, 'We're going to win this or win that'.

"Everyone knows what Ulster Rugby and rugby in Ulster can be when we make it a success.

"The cliché is that you have to focus on the process and not the outcome. On and off the field, we have to do better day in and day out and see where that takes us. It's not about fudging, and it's not about not putting my neck on the block, but let's get the basics and fundamentals right and that has us moving in the right direction."

There's no doubt that to leave Scottish rugby will have been a wrench. A former captain of both Glasgow and the national side, the 42-year-old's four-year spell at Edinburgh in a similar role to the one he now occupies in Belfast coincided with an upward trajectory.

On the other side of the ledger, there was the state of affairs at the club he was to join.

The scars of recent events have yet to fully heal and diminishing returns on the field were the tip of the iceberg. An exodus of senior players in recent years included two highly differing but highly controversial departures.

Ruan Pienaar was jettisoned when the long-serving club legend desired a new contract, while last season the organisation would appear daily on the front pages of newspapers all over Ireland and beyond as what came to be dubbed 'the Belfast rape trial' played out.

Two players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were unanimously acquitted by the jury of raping the same woman at a house party in the summer of 2016 but both still had their contracts revoked following an internal review by Ulster and the IRFU and now ply their trade in France.

There has already been an upturn of fortunes on the field in the short-term, Ulster securing a first quarter-final in the Champions Cup for five years, while recent recruitment has been cause for cautious optimism too, not least the three-year contract extension signed by South African star Marcell Coetzee yesterday.

Attendance figures, though, have not had a similar bounce-back.

With professional match income accounting for £3.3million of a £10.2million total revenue, the importance of bodies through turnstiles is obvious.

Season ticket sales have fallen from 10,400 to 8,600 over the past two seasons, while the 1,500 fall in average attendance from 2016-17 to 2017-18 has not been redressed with only two home gates to date having exceeded last year's average of 14,200.

"You don't need to be an accountant to see some of the challenges that are in there," Petrie said. "We've seen falling revenues and falling attendance figures, and the direct correlation between the two.

"That's largely driven by some of the off-field challenges we've had where the focus hasn't been on the rugby during those years, and equally during those times when the performance out there hasn't been good enough. People want a product they can be proud of and that is largely successful."

Given the scale of his job, the golf clubs remain in Scotland, but when he has got to see some of the province in a non-rugby capacity, he's quickly come to feel at home.

"It has been great," he said. "People seem to think in coming into these roles that you will just live in Scotland and commute across and be back and forth.

"But it was important for me that if I was going to do this I was going to up sticks and come across and be here, partly because it is a hugely busy role, but it is important as Chief Executive to embrace life in Northern Ireland and in Ulster and we have found it enormously welcoming coming across here.

"We have had a brilliant welcome and you do feel the warmth and passion of people towards the sport.

"You feel quite emotional about the whole thing because it is something that is genuinely important to people over here and it is important to people that I treat it with the respect it is due."

He hasn't quite gone native yet, especially not with the small matter of an Ireland v Scotland clash in the Six Nations this weekend.

"I am Scottish and I am a proud Scotsman and I played for Scotland for a long time," he added. "That is not going to change. So there is only one winner I want on Saturday and I am not going to pretend otherwise."

If you hear an out of place cheer in the Bangor area during the game on Saturday afternoon, you'll likely know who has produced it.

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