Where did it all go wrong? - Uncertainty once again cloaks the future of Ulster rugby
"In the future, the dream ticket for Ulster is that we are the world's best and people are coming here from around the world to see how we do it. Also that we are thriving in our clubs and schools, that the Ulster side is winning trophies, that our coaches and players are in demand in New Zealand and Australia and that we are recognised as doing things the best way - and also in a straight, honest and enduring manner."
Shane Logan, Ulster CEO, February 2015
On an October night in 2010 we ended up as the sole southern representative at a table of Ulster hacks. It was in Biarritz, balmy enough, and despite the second-half collapse of their team earlier that day the group was lively and upbeat. Change was underway, for the better. After a long road with no turn, they could see good times around the corner.
We got to discussing the relative merits of the provinces, and, given that Munster and Leinster between them had picked up three of the previous five Heineken Cups, you could see what direction the conversation was going. At one point a colleague arrested it to make plain something he felt needed clarifying.
"It's all very fine for you in Dublin writing from a distance about Munster and Leinster and Ulster," he said. "But this is our team. These guys represent who we are!"
It stayed with us, that line, for while the Brave and the Faithful were dominating the fan-zones of Europe they were a recent phenomenon. Ulster's politics would always mean that the bond between team and supporters - by extension those who wrote about them - would be a longer and closer affair.
So we observed with interest the scene last weekend in Kingspan Stadium as Ulster's season ended prematurely, again. On the surface the full house waved cheerfully and clapped as their hero, Ruan Pienaar, signed off his last competitive game in a winning performance against Leinster.
Barely below that surface, however, was a level of discontent among the fans that has been matched within the squad. Its epicentre was the coaching staff, two of whom, Neil Doak and Allen Clarke, were, like Pienaar, on their last lap.
From all sources we spoke to last week the relationship between director of rugby Les Kiss, Doak and Clarke was dysfunctional. 'Toxic' was a word used by three separate people to describe the atmosphere in the Ulster camp. Clarke's unpopularity with the players was seemingly widespread. Sources close to the centre say he didn't get on with Doak, and that Doak in turn couldn't operate under Kiss, who he felt was invading his space on the field. That may have been because Kiss, as the boss, wanted to mark his own territory, and was not enamoured of Doak's reaction to the shift in power. Either way the dynamic was awful, and badly managed.
The circumstances in which these three men were thrown together are themselves reflective of an operation running up its own backside.
You could say the decline started after Ulster fell asleep at the wheel in the wake of the European Cup win in 1999. Or you could choose a point almost eight seasons later when Mark McCall resigned, a season and a half after delivering the province's only Celtic League title. Perhaps the stripes he got on his back during that three and a half years in charge in Ravenhill have shaped the highly successful coach he is today, but certainly they looked painful at the time. The vitriol that attended his demise illustrated a fan-base with crazy expectations from an organisation who weren't tooled up to deliver.
Thereafter Ulster roller-coasted, with the lows more memorable than the highs. The constant themes have been the power of the dressing-room, whose influence was greater off the pitch than on it, and the poor choices made in the boardroom.
The nadir has a place on YouTube, albeit with a surprisingly low hit-rate. In February 2012 then operations director David Humphreys faced the press to explain why coach Brian McLaughlin was being shunted sideways into the Academy. McLaughlin was in his third season in a job he had been given in unusual circumstances.
Since McCall's departure Ulster had, after caretaker coach Steve Williams, been through 17 months of Matt Williams. They wanted someone to settle a listing ship. McLaughlin had a long career behind him as a schools coach, had worked as a skills coach with Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland set-up, and was Ulster through and through. Humphreys thought he would be ideal to give the young Ulster squad some direction. For how long, though, was a different matter.
To give McLaughlin some comfort for abandoning his school gig in RBAI for the capricious world of pro sport, the sweetener was a guaranteed place somewhere in the Ulster set-up when the natural life of the senior coaching role expired. Agreeing what was natural was another issue.
Having drawn blanks at the business end of Europe ever since they won it in '99, McLaughlin had overseen back-to-back qualification for the knock-outs. The natives were more than bullish. But some powerful voices in the dressing-room reckoned he wasn't the man to complete the job, and Humphreys evidently agreed. The press conference to announce the shift was Punch and Judy without the contact.
To compound the public relations disaster, Ulster turned to Mark Anscombe as his successor. A self-styled straight shooter, the New Zealander must have winged a few of the wrong cowboys in the dressing-room, because they cut him short as well. Oh, almost forgot: Humphreys, who had recruited Anscombe, jumped ship to Gloucester in June 2014. He had barely got his feet under the desk at Kingsholm when Anscombe got shafted back in Belfast.
That's where Les Kiss came in. Showing a sharp eye for a gap, Ulster wedged themselves into the space between Kiss and his duties as Ireland defence coach. It was seen at the time as a coup, for Kiss is highly regarded. Initially he left assistants Doak, Clarke and Jonny Bell in charge while he served out his time with Ireland, and looked in on Ulster. As soon as the World Cup was over, Kiss rode north in earnest. A new era began.
It is unclear exactly when the relationship began to sour. The lads had enjoyed the freedom of the gaff when Kiss was in absentee landlord mode, and Ulster were competitive without picking up anything to show for it. The next season was more of the same: good in Europe without being good enough, and invited to the end-of-season party in the PRO12, but not asked to stay over.
This season, however, was a studied exercise in failure. Hobbled by a freakish number of injuries, especially up front, gradually the waft of internal unrest began to spread. When it was announced that Clarke and Doak would be moving on, there was a mixture of relief and disappointment among those close to the scene: glad the charade was coming to an end, and certainly in Doak's case sad that a coach with a lot to offer was no longer wanted. Clarke will be with the Ospreys next season; Doak will, initially at any rate, coach in Queen's University.
Kiss in the meantime will be picking up the pieces, knowing that if they fall again he won't get a chance to explain. It helps that neither of his new wingmen, Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel, have any connection with the province. So no history, no baggage. But both should be aware of the scale of the task: they will inherit a squad short of forward power but big on passing the buck. The best player, Pienaar, is en route to France, and there is no queue of local lads looking for his shirt.
At that press conference in 2012 to shift McLaughlin sideways, Humphreys explained it as a knock-on effect of IRFU policy. Head office, he said, were demanding optimum performance from Ulster's Academy. The pressure was hot to increase the crop of home-growns, and McLaughlin was the man to do that. McLaughlin left a year later. And despite all the moaning over Pienaar being exiled from Ulster, there are still great big gaps where the young players are supposed to be. No sign of the bus-loads rolling up to Ravenhill to learn the Ulster Way, either.
On Friday evening, Shane Logan issued the following statement: "There's no doubt that it has been a hugely frustrating season for us but I believe the pillars of success are in place at Ulster Rugby. We have a loyal supporter base, excellent facilities, a talented playing squad, an improving Academy programme and a strong management/back-room team. This will all contribute to the long-term and sustainable future of Ulster Rugby."
Sunday Indo Sport