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Why Ulster need to send out SOS before it's too late

 

By Neil Francis

Among the Titanic's prodigious on-board facilities were a swimming pool, gym, squash court, two libraries, a kennel for first-class dogs, and a Turkish bath, but the bells and whistles mattered little once the ill-fated ship started to go under.

It is easy to give off an impression of style, financial security and world-leading ambition but if there are cracks underneath the mahogany veneer and you are taking on water at an alarming rate, you will keep sinking until drastic action is taken.

Ulster Rugby could learn a thing or two from the demise of the Titanic. Their much-lauded Kingspan Stadium is located just three miles away from where the monstrous passenger liner was built, yet the piercing distress signals emanating from Ravenhill are being dismissed by those steering the ship as nothing more than a faulty 'check engine' light.

Tomorrow marks 106 years since the Titanic hit the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean nearly 400 miles south of Newfoundland, and while I am not suggesting Ulster are destined for such a tragic ending, I do have grave fears for the province unless major changes are made, and fast.

Ulster Rugby CEO Shane Logan may continue to play down this time of crisis, like he did when answering pre-prepared questions on the province's YouTube channel during the week of the Ireland-England Six Nations clash, but the grim reality is the problems are festering in Belfast.

"We've a stadium which is the envy of rugby in Europe," Logan said in the bizarre online 'interview'. "We've cleared many millions of debt and we're one of the few clubs in Europe which is now debt-free. Our commercial revenues are up towards the top end which allows us to be competitive in the long term."

However, there are obviously structural frailties away from their state-of-the-art home. No trophies have been won since the Celtic League triumph of 2006, they haven't got out of their Champions Cup pool for four successive seasons, a PRO12/PRO14 play-off spot looks like eluding them for a second successive campaign, and there is a genuine risk that the 1999 Heineken Cup champions will miss out on qualification for the top European competition for the first time in their history.

Add to that the instability of their coaching set-up over the last number of years, the lack of home-grown players coming through the system, and an atrocious record in this season's inter-provincial fixtures, and things are looking pretty bleak.

Circumstances haven't helped Ulster this season, of course. The loss of Ruan Pienaar was massive while serious injuries to key players such as Jared Payne and Marcell Coetzee, and the unavailability of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, and the added stress brought on by their much-publicised trial, have taken their toll.

The problems at the province run much deeper than this season's difficulties, however; Ulster have been on a downward curve since they got rid of Brian McLaughlin in 2012, the man who brought them to a Heineken Cup final with a P45 in his back pocket.

This Ulster side have lost their identity and the connection to their proud traditions, and that is doing their knowledgeable and passionate fans an incredible disservice.

Ulster are averaging the same amount of players on the Ireland U-20s sides as Munster, yet we are not seeing enough home-grown talent breaking through, those who have a real link to the province's past.

Dubliner John Cooney has done an excellent job filling the considerable shoes of Pienaar, and next year he will be joined at the Kingspan by fellow Leinster products Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy. The latter duo are undoubtedly quality international-standard rugby players but it begs the question, 'what is happening with the best young players in the northern province?'

From an Irish perspective it is vital that Ulster are playing in Europe's top competition next season with a World Cup coming into view, and it's also essential that the development of talented players such as Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy, Sean Reidy, Cooney, Moore and Murphy - who will likely be on the fringes of the Ireland squad and should be coming into the prime of their careers - is not allowed to stagnate.

There has been a sense of division around this Ulster set-up for quite some time, and I recall seeing a snapshot of the fractious atmosphere in Cardiff airport in December 2016.

Ulster had just ended a torrid three-match losing streak in the PRO12 with an impressive bonus-point victory against the Blues, yet when I saw them preparing to head home after a morale-boosting win all of the coaching staff were sitting separately, seemingly disinterested in the company of their colleagues.

I played under Les Kiss with Ireland and he was a fantastic coach and a great bloke to be around, yet when he went to Ulster the change in his demeanour was obvious.

It might sound unfair to pick out one such occasion but you couldn't help but feel the group was lacking togetherness. When you have spent so much time in team environments, it's easy to spot these things.

I would hope that the next coaching ticket, even if it has a big outside name as director of rugby, has a strong core that appreciates what Ulster Rugby is all about.

Munster under Rassie Erasmus, while ultimately a short-term solution, proved that model can work if egos are left at the door and everyone has the best interests of the province at heart.

Questions also need to be asked about the recruitment policy in Ulster; Charles Piutau is an incredibly talented player but the back-three area was never the one that required the most attention, their primary concern has been the front five for quite some time.

Piutau has appeared disinterested on occasions this season, he has the look of a man who is counting down the days until he is counting his even greater wages at Bristol.

He's still dangerous in attack but there have only been flashes of work ethic in the Ulster shirt which is symptomatic of where the team are at - up one week, down the next.

Eight years ago Logan proclaimed Ulster were going to become one of the top club sides in the world. It is hard not to admire his ambition but the reality is they have regressed on his watch, despite having some heady early days under McLaughlin.

Logan needs to address the fans and convince them he is the right man to turn things around. If he can't do that, he has to go.

The Ulster Rugby CEO reiterated in his YouTube 'interview' that he has no intention of resigning despite growing discontent with his leadership among supporters and former players such as Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace.

"It (Ulster Rugby) needs a new skipper at the helm, Logan has had his time," Wallace said.

Ulster can't delay the SOS any longer.

Belfast Telegraph

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