Our Sporting Lives with Alan Solomons: Someone told me I'd never leave and they were right - Helen's Bay is still home to me


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Former Ulster Rugby coach Alan Solomons

Former Ulster Rugby coach Alan Solomons

©INPHO/Craig Watson

Former Ulster Rugby coach Alan Solomons

On first visit, Alan Solomons could never have known that Ravenhill, its stadium and its people, would have such a profound effect on his life.

As an assistant with the Springboks, the night the South African 'A' side arrived in Belfast in 1998 was far from the most glamorous stop on their tour.

Sandwiched between full-blown Test matches against Ireland and England, the game against the Irish second string was something of an afterthought.

Indeed the 'Boks frontliners were already in London preparing for Twickenham while their dirt-trackers were in front of a 10,000-strong crowd and dismantling a team that included the likes of David Humphreys, Anthony Foley, Jeremy Davidson and a then-uncapped tight-head named John Hayes.

While the world champions moved on without much of a second thought, Solomons next visit to these shores would last considerably longer.

In many ways, it's still ongoing.

Three years later, his coaching career had looked set to take him to New Zealand before he got word of interest from Belfast, erstwhile Ulster back-rower Dion O'Cuinneagain helping to sell his former coach on the idea.

"It was out of the blue but Syd Miller, who is one of the finest rugby people I've ever met, spoke to Rian Oberholzer who was the chief executive of the South African Rugby Union at the time," Solomons remembers. "I had done the Stormers for years and I had a concrete offer elsewhere but I thought it was something that I had to give consideration. I didn't know much about Northern Ireland at all but I spoke to Dion who I'd coached at Western Province and even further back from the University of Cape Town. Dion was very fulsome in his praise of the province and the people.

Ravenhill was very different. Not the fancy place it is now which looks great, but I loved that old stadium, I really did.

"He just said it was a great place, he was so positive that it definitely had a big influence on my decision.

"I met with everyone and weighed everything up. The people that I met on the rugby committee all seemed very nice so I thought, let's take this opportunity and I took the job.

"I flew to Belfast at the end of June 2001, not long before the twelfth. We were staying on the Lagan at first where there was a bit of activity but we quickly loved the place. The people were fantastic.

"One of the first talks I gave was at a rugby club and a lady came up to me and told me that I'd never leave.

"And I haven't. For all the jobs I've had since, it's still Helen's Bay and my house there that's home."

A former lawyer who specialised in litigation, Solomons joined Ulster at an interesting time. By and large, the European Cup winning side of 1999 had gone their separate ways and the team had won only once in the Heineken Cup since that unforgettable day against Colomiers in Lansdowne Road. Further still, he would be guiding the side into uncharted territory, his first game in charge coming against Swansea as the Celtic League, precursor to the PRO14, began its inaugural campaign.

A man who took his rugby so seriously he famously would have players train on Christmas day during his early career, the native of the Eastern Cape quickly set about addressing the work required to bring his new side up to speed, authoring his "Vision Ulster" document that outlined problems with player conditioning, skill levels and the lack of a pathway for young players.

"In fairness, Ulster had never really been a professional team," he says. "There just weren't enough games. There were just the interpros and the European games. I felt that in terms of professionalism, they hadn't been exposed to it. In South Africa, to be honest, I was saying from the early 80's, the game may as well have been professional. When I was coaching in the university, the provincial guys were all getting paid then. I know just from some of my mates that there were guys getting paid in the 70's. Professionalism had been there for a long time.

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Alan Solomons returned to the revamped Ravenhill with Edinburgh but it was the old ground that stole his heart.

Alan Solomons returned to the revamped Ravenhill with Edinburgh but it was the old ground that stole his heart.

©INPHO/Presseye/Matt Mackey

Alan Solomons returned to the revamped Ravenhill with Edinburgh but it was the old ground that stole his heart.

"From my career, I'd been exposed to a lot and part and parcel of the job was to bring that to Ulster. Immediately I thought that everyone was very supportive, from Mike Reid the CEO to my assistant Sarah Sherry, but we had deficiencies in certain areas where we needed to get players that would help bring things along.

"We signed players who knew all about what was needed, people like Rod Moore who came through the Brumbies, Kempo (Robbi Kempson) who came from the Sharks and Matt Sexton who came from the Crusaders, they really helped the process. It was about bringing that experience of professionalism to Ulster."

Improvement was stark and the reputation of Ravenhill as one of the toughest places to visit in Europe restored. Solomons' sides went undefeated in his final 21 games in BT6, a mark that, although recently equalled by Dan McFarland's current side, remains the province's longest ever run in the pro era.

"When I arrived, I was used to Newlands, which was state-of-the art then. Ravenhill was very different," he recalls.

I remember saying to Neil Best, 'I don't think this guy wants to be here today, you go out and make sure.'

"Not the fancy place it is now which looks great, but I loved that old stadium, I really did.

"The first game, it was sold out and it had an unbelievable atmosphere.

"What I loved about Ulster was that they had supporters, not fans. A fan is here today and gone tomorrow but supporters are the people there through thick and thin. When I came there, yes it had been a little bit tough in the seasons just past but the supporters were still there in their droves and I really respected that.

"As we progressed and developed as a team I believed in my heart and soul, and was proven to be right most of the time, that nobody could beat us there.

"We were a physical outfit. We didn't have the big names but we had good players. Kempson, Moore and Sexton up front, Jeremy Davidson who had played for the Lions, Andy Ward, David Humphreys and Tyrone Howe who had all played for Ireland.

"We were good but more important was that teams didn't like playing us and they didn't like playing there (Ravenhill).

"The weather wasn't the finest, and guys would come to this ground with all the tradition, all the history and the atmosphere and it just wasn't welcoming.

"I remember one game we were playing against Leinster, a wet and windy night in Belfast, and they had an Irish international in the back-row.

"I remember saying to Neil Best, 'I don't think this guy wants to be here today, you go out and make sure.'

"Which, being Neil, of course he did."

His time at Ulster, which brought with it silverware in the shape of the first edition of the short-lived Celtic Cup, would come to an end in 2004 before an ill-fated stint at Northampton lasted just ten games. Spells with the Southern Kings and Edinburgh followed before he was back in the Premiership and his current role as Worcester Warriors Director of Rugby.

Knowing that the IRFU's desire for indigenous coaches meant Mark McCall had long been seen as his natural successor at Ulster, it's a similar gig to the one he once hoped for in Belfast. And it's the similarities between the squad he has now at Sixways and the one he once nurtured at Ravenhill that keep him so invested in the game as he approaches his 70th birthday this summer.

"I remember before my last year at Ulster we went to Durban for a camp and Andy Ward, who was a fantastic captain for me, said it was like a creche, we had so many youngsters coming through," he says. "Tommy Bowe, Neil McMillan, Neil Best, Seamus Mallon and Roger Wilson, they were all coming through then and it gave me a real kick.

"I'm a university man at heart, back to my days coaching in Cape Town and I love to see young players coming through. Everywhere I've been, back in South Africa with Bobby Skinstad, Percy Montgomery, Robbie Fleck, at Edinburgh with Jamie Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Blair Kinghorn, when I look at our guys in Worcester now, it's the same and it gives me that same kick.

"Obviously the world is a different place now and the people have changed but for me I suppose it seems seamless because I've never been away from it, I've never stopped coaching.

"Technology changes but the basic principles don't move greatly. Core values still resonate with young players and young people.

"I've a simple philosophy. The three most important things are integrity, selflessness and professionalism. Those things resonate and always have.

"You look at the people before you look at the players and we've some great people at Worcester.

"It's been a tough old job but I'm so optimistic about where we're going."

No sign of retirement in the offing just yet. The lure of Helen's Bay will wait that little bit longer.

Belfast Telegraph