Thursday 23 February 2017

Hugh Farrelly: Why we must trust in our own abilities

IRELAND gearing up for their Six Nations opener and revenge mission against Wales; Ulster dropping the bombshell that Brian McLaughlin will not be retained as coach, it's been quite a week.

And there is an underlying principle that binds the two stories together -- having belief in your own ability.

Let's start with Ulster and their decision to dump McLaughlin -- a bizarre and, in many ways, shameful call that threatens to undermine the progress being made in Ravenhill. It has not been hard to be critical of Ulster in the past, and their over-reliance on foreign imports continues to grate, but no-one can question the strides taken since McLaughlin took over.

The writing may have been on the wall when he was only handed a one-year contract extension last year, but there was an assumption that it was open to review depending on how Ulster fared this campaign. And they have been faring extremely well.

While it was hard to decipher a discernible style for McLaughlin's team -- even up to Christmas -- that began to take shape in the impressive win over Munster on December 30, swiftly backed up by an excellent triumph in Edinburgh.

Ulster played with tremendous intensity up front and -- as well as using the boot of Ian Humphreys to play the territory game -- began to demonstrate a commendable capacity to attack from deep and seek off-loads when they moved the ball wide.

It all came together for their decisive Heineken Cup clash with Leicester at Ravenhill last month, when the English heavyweights could not handle Ulster's multi-faceted game. McLaughlin then oversaw an excellent performance in Clermont (the best of the provinces who have gone there), when victory should have been theirs but for Nathan Hines' act of gamesmanship.

And then they axe, sorry, re-assign McLaughlin. It seems certain that his replacement will come from the southern hemisphere, with New Zealander Matt Sexton the most likely candidate and once again we are back to Irish rugby doffing its cap to overseas 'expertise'.

So, the province is doing away with an indigenous coach of over 30 years' experience through all the various levels (including Ireland, where he worked as skills coach), who possesses an innate understanding of Ulster rugby, in favour of an outsider who has to start from scratch.

Sexton, if it is him, has played for Ulster and so would have some understanding of how it works in the province, but how does his coaching record (he has coached the Canterbury Crusaders Academy) make him a better candidate than McLaughlin to bring Ulster forward?

Indeed, it is hard to think of any overseas coach who is better qualified. Ulster chief executive Shane Logan has expressed his desire to establish the province as the top club in Irish and European rugby and obviously does not believe McLaughlin is the man to take them there -- ignoring the fact that it is McLaughlin who has brought them furthest along the road.

It seems this conclusion may have been arrived at as far back as October when Ulster lost four games on the bounce, including a 12-23 home defeat to Treviso. But, surely the improvements from then to now, including another Heineken Cup quarter-final qualification after not being able to get out of their pool throughout the 2000s, would have forced a rethink?

baffled

Looking in from the outside, you can never be sure what is going on in the dressing-room, but the word is that the Ulster players are as baffled by this move as the majority of supporters.

Let us hope sense prevails, there is still time for a climb-down and awarding McLaughlin the contract extension he deserves would be a massive lift as they chase European and Pro12 silverware.

Believing in your own ability is central to Ireland's approach against Wales on Sunday also.

If this were a Heineken Cup home match, you would be predicting a bonus-point victory, but there is still an air of doubt surrounding Ireland as they square off against their World Cup conquerors.

There shouldn't be. The same players have been excelling for Ulster, Munster and Leinster in Europe, where they run out expecting to win no matter who they are facing, and that should be the case when they take the field in front of their own supporters to face the Welsh.

The two definites to emerge from this week are that Ireland should be beating Wales comfortably and Brian McLaughlin should be continuing as Ulster coach. Strength comes from within.

Irish Independent

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