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Selection of top man is do or die for Ulster and Cunningham

 

By Jonathan Bradley

As European fever grips three quarters of Irish rugby, it was all quiet at Kingspan Stadium yesterday.

While Leinster, Munster and Connacht eagerly awaited their Champions or Challenge Cup quarter-finals this weekend, there were metaphorical tumble weeds rolling through BT6.

With the A side preparing for their British and Irish Cup tie with Bedford, there were a few fringe players and youngsters milling round.

Some frontliners traipsed in for physio too, but the stadium had a largely uninhabited feel to it in the days that the European club game enters its thrilling business end.

Make no mistake though, while January's thumping at the hands of Wasps ensured the faltering northern province would have no game this Easter, there can have been few more important weeks in recent seasons.

With Director of Rugby Les Kiss already having departed during the winter, and head coach Jono Gibbes set to follow at the end of season, top of the to-do list at present is how to best fill a pronounced leadership void.

Between Ulster and their governing body, the IRFU, a shortlist for a new coach is being finalised with interviews to commence shortly.

With even the most optimistic of Ulster supporters now surely accepting that there is no quick fix to the problems that have set in, the appointment could hardly feel more crucial.

"We will reduce the size of our squad going into next season because the big focus for us is blooding those younger players a bit more," said Bryn Cunningham, the Operations Director and newly-established face of the organisation recently on how to overhaul a squad no longer fit for purpose.

"Getting them more game time and making it quite organised so we're looking at a guy and saying, he needs five or six games this season, how do we factor that in? If he's got four or five guys ahead of him in a position then that's going to be very difficult to manufacture unless there's significant injuries.

"What we've also got to be aware of is we've got to make sure we get the next couple of foreign recruitment signings right and absolutely nailed on.

"It's very much dependent on our needs right now, who's on the market, who's the best fit for us, our financial constraints and making sure, in an ideal world, by at least 2019/20 we have the ideal squad we could have, both NIQ and Irish qualified."

While the target of 2019/20 will not be music to the ears of any fans still somehow expecting a turnaround next year, it may be seen as pragmatic to save bullets for a post-World Cup transfer market.

With an extra year of experience under their belts, it will be hoped too that by then Ulster's latest bunch of youngsters will be ready to contribute in a way their recent predecessors never did.

Having a better balanced squad in place will mean very little though without the right man at the helm to act as a guide.

A culture shift is required and getting a coach with the requisite character for the fight is a necessity.

While Edinburgh's Richard Cockerill, whose own rebuild in the Scottish capital has hastened the critical glare cast upon Ulster, would have been a perfect candidate had he been available this summer rather than last, it is no surprise to see the similarly no-nonsense Shaun Edwards discussed in relation to the post.

Whoever the powers that be decide upon, stability will be key, worryingly so given that Ulster have plenty of previous this century for getting such decisions wrong.

After a litany of missteps, it has never been more important that the latest coaching appointment sees the organisation finally put their best foot forward.

Belfast Telegraph

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