Racist text furore just adds to farce
ULSTER should be going into tomorrow's Heineken Cup final with a sense of pride and celebration at what has been achieved over the past three seasons.
The steady improvement in results and style of play has revitalised rugby in the province, swelling support numbers and extending Ulster's appeal beyond traditional boundaries. Earlier this week, Ulster had 12 players named in the Ireland squad to face the Barbarians, four more than Munster, an unheard-of situation a few years ago.
Those are the knock-on effects of a hugely positive story, a tale of planning, progression and production, which, regardless of the result tomorrow, demands to be lauded. Cue sound of record scratching.
There is a significant caveat which cannot be ignored and involves the coach on whose watch this remarkable upsurge has occurred. Brian McLaughlin is facing into his last match in charge of Ulster tomorrow, unwanted despite all that has been achieved since he came in three seasons ago.
It all feels a bit 'Irish' or, to draw from the jargon of politics, "grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented."
Rugby press conferences tend to be pretty staid, uneventful affairs, but Ulster's February briefing where director of rugby David Humphreys outlined the reasoning behind the axing decision, beside a clearly discomfited McLaughlin, made for fascinating viewing.
Denying that it was a "ludicrous" move or that it would be "embarrassing" if Ulster went on to be crowned European champions, Humphreys insisted that: "We believe that we have made a decision in the best interests of Ulster rugby. For me, the absolute perfect outcome is that we go on and win the Heineken Cup."
Perhaps you need to be removed from the situation to understand it, so it is interesting then to note the impartial observations of former England and Lions out-half, and current Sky Sports pundit, Stuart Barnes this week.
"If Ulster are champions of Europe, but Brian McLaughlin is wallowing in the academy or he gets the hump and buggers off to England and France then, frankly, David should resign because it would be such a terrible error," said Barnes.
Even allowing for the bizarreness behind the decision to move aside McLaughlin, the choice of his replacement thickens the plot further.
A world-class, proven international coach would have constituted a reasonable counter-argument to what has happened, but Ulster ended up with Mark Anscombe, discarded by Auckland and untried at this level in Europe.
To go back inside the fold -- or close to it -- these were the thoughts of Barnes' fellow Sky Sports pundit and former Ulster winger Tyrone Howe: "If I was the incoming coach sitting in New Zealand, I would be thinking 'oh, sh**'. If Ulster were to win it (the Heineken Cup), the only way is down and if they lose, the only way to better it is to win it. That's a very difficult situation for a new coach."
And this was before the racism controversy which blew up around Anscombe yesterday. Reports from New Zealand are alleging that a text was sent from Anscombe's phone to Auckland Blues coach Pat Lam, a Samoan, referring to Maori and Polynesian players in a racist and abusive way.
Anscombe was reported as saying that he did not send the message, claiming that he left the phone in his kitchen and it was sent by a member of a group he was entertaining at the time.
Regardless of the details of what took place in Anscombe's kitchen, the furore in New Zealand does not reflect well on the man Ulster have chosen to bring in for McLaughlin.
Ulster go into this contest with genuine prospects of victory. If they get after the champions' set-piece, replicate and increase the intensity they showed when beating Munster in Thomond Park in the quarter-finals and if Ruan Pienaar picks off points as well as exerting the exemplary control he showed in the semi-final win over Edinburgh, an Ulster victory is certainly on.
It would be wonderful affirmation for McLaughlin and for players who have flourished during his tenure, but would also emphasise the "ludicrousness" and "embarrassment" Humphreys claims does not exist.
The truth is that the logic behind this whole, sorry affair has been laughable from the start -- including Anscombe's reported claim that an associate of his sent the racist text to Lam as "a joke."