David Humphreys' ambitious plan for Ulster faces its litmus test this afternoon, says Brendan Fanning
We don't have definitive statistics to confirm this, but virtually every time we walk through the gate from Onslow Parade, it's cold and wet and thoroughly miserable. Ravenhill makes the Sportsground feel like LA. It is rarely anything other than grey.
Naturally enough, this is the topic of conversation with a member of the Ulster staff as we wait for David Humphreys, a man who, over a lifetime of rugby, managed to eke every advantage out of those familiarly bleak conditions.
"Hopefully it will be a bit brighter in Limerick," says the lady in reception. "It's a long trek, isn't it?" she asks, suggesting it's unbroken ground for her. Oh, it's that all right. And are hopes high of the 6,000 Ulster folk singing all the way home? "Well, they have to believe that's it's doable, don't they?"
That's been the recurring theme this past week. Aside from the fitness of Stephen Ferris on the one side, and the clutch of returning Munster men on the other, it's been all about what's going on in Ulster heads, and if they have come far enough along the road to cope with Munster in Limerick on a Heineken Cup day.
The man who is driving them down that road is David Humphreys. When Ravenhill was heaving on those heady days in the 1998/'99 campaign, the outhalf was the go-to man. He directed the operation; Simon Mason applied the finishing touches. From the moment Humphreys announced himself on the senior team in 1992 as a skinny, 11-stone-something replacement -- coincidentally at an interpro in Thomond Park -- and dropped a goal to clinch the tie, he has been at the heart of the operation.
Twenty years on and not a whole lot heavier, not that much has changed. As a player, Humphreys was expected to do the spectacular. As rugby director, he has swapped boots for sandals and taken on the role of Moses.
We don't know what the biblical bloke was like in getting the lads out of Egypt, but if he had the ruthless streak of David George Humphreys then there can't have been much doubt that they would arrive. It's a question of when.
The Ballymena man had barely signed off after his 162 provincial caps when he was cornered for a newly-created role to deliver his people to the Promised Land. That was 2008. For the first year or so he ran around getting his hands dirty on all the different bits of machinery that made up the Ulster operation. For the last two years he has been steering things from further up the production line, and evidently in the right direction.
"We had all felt that Ulster was on a bit of a slide," he says of the scene when he got the job first. "So at that point you're standing looking at the situation and going, you know what, there's two options here: we let Munster and Leinster run away from us and make the gap so big it'll never be closed and we become almost a feeder province to them or some of the English and French clubs, or else we really have a crack at trying to reestablish Ulster as a competitive force in what at that time was the Magners League, and then also the Heineken Cup.
"I've been involved since Ulster schools at 17, so I had 20 years in this organisation and it's something I feel very passionate about, and something I have a huge amount of pride in. And I think it hurt all of us who had been involved over that period, and these were people who had been involved with Ulster during that period when nobody beat them. And out of the blue I was offered this opportunity to stay involved and try and maybe help turn things around."
Let's sum up where they are now then. Off the field, their crowds are up modestly on last season, and a sustained spike will be required to match the planning-approved development of Ravenhill, supported to the tune of €18.2m by the NI Executive, into an 18,000-capacity stadium by autumn 2014. Humphreys accepts that with their ambition to be bigger and better comes the risk that the place could have the feel of a Welsh new-build, where the loudest noise is the echo.
On the field, their results since winning the Magners League in 2006 have read: 5th, 9th, 8th, 8th, 3rd. Currently they are just outside the play-off zone, with a point separating them from the two teams in third and fourth. Last season they qualified for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time since winning it in 1999. And two months ago they repeated the trick.
The squad has been transformed by the arrival of men hand-picked by Humphreys. His overseas signings have all worked out very well, notwithstanding Jared Payne rupturing his Achilles after only three games -- he will play next season when Humphreys expects him to do for Ulster what Isa Nacewa has done for Leinster. Indeed, the only one of his signings you'd say has stalled has been Mike McComish, who was returning north from Connacht having had a sojourn in England in between.
Clearly, Humphreys is very good at this. He puts a lot of time into identifying the right man, and then hops on a plane to meet him before taking it any further. This is not standard practice in rugby recruitment. It is the part of the job he says he enjoys most. It might not be because he is such a good people person -- and some in Ravenhill would say he has a bit of work to do on this front -- but because he has such a clear understanding of what is needed to move the group forward. And he is driven by an ambition that owes something to the last days of the Roman Empire, as was London Irish in the earliest days of professionalism.
"I look back on it very fondly, but also with a sense of frustration because for me that was what summed up Irish rugby back then," he says.
"When you look at that group of players and what some of them went on to achieve with different clubs, but also with London Irish and with Ireland, it was actually a very, very competitive team when you look at it now. But because we were Irish and we were playing in an English league, right at the start we didn't believe we were good enough. And that showed in the results."
So he wasn't going there again. That would mean taking tough decisions in Ulster. The first, which didn't attract that much media comment at the time, was ditching his old pal Jeremy Davidson from the forwards coaching job last year. That was followed two months ago by the sideways shift -- which generated a storm up north -- of Brian McLaughlin from the head coach role to the Academy.
"When Brian first came in three years ago he and I both saw a long-term future for him in Ulster rugby because of the experience he's gained," Humphreys says, by way of background.
"The difficulty obviously is that the timing of it is hard but in professional sport is there a good time to make decisions? We had to make it halfway through the year to give some of the coaches the opportunity to look elsewhere so there were a whole lot of factors in it, but yes we could have done it differently. And if we ever have to do it again we will do it differently. But, as I say, we feel it was made for the right reasons and it's a decision we're very comfortable with."
You shouldn't suspect for a moment that the last sentence in that paragraph was media-speak. Nor should you think that Humphreys did not consult the senior players before he went through with the move. To sum it up: McLaughlin had been hired as a member of staff rather than a contracted head coach, and both Humphreys and CEO Shane Logan maintain it was always the plan to move him to the Academy at some point. McLaughlin understandably had the hump that the move came when his stock had never been higher.
It is ironic that the controversy should have echoes of Warren Gatland's shock parting from Ireland in 2001. The Kiwi was moved on because it was thought, correctly, that he had served his purpose with that group.
The thought process, right or wrong, with McLaughlin is exactly the same. Humphreys remembers meeting Gatland not long after he took over the reins in Ravenhill.
"He said, 'you know what, there'll be a lot of ups and downs along the way but it will take you a long time to establish what you want. Don't get frustrated'. There were times where, like the start of the season when we lost four games on the bounce and you're thinking: 'Jeepers, how can 80 minutes on a Friday night be such a determining factor in your whole week in the mindset of everybody involved?'"
They got over that early-season slump to reach a point where, with their best team out, they can go toe to toe with anyone. Their problem is getting a bench to match the starting XV. And then a support cast for the bench.
If you are in any doubt about the role of the replacements, then go back to Leinster's last-quarter demolition of Munster last weekend. In the background, Ulster have plans to raise the playing numbers in the province from 27,000 at all levels to 40,000 to support their production line.
They won't get out of the starting blocks in that race without pushing on in Europe. The return of Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson next season will add to that drive, but mostly they need to kick-start it with success in Limerick today. Defeat would mean that the three biggest games of their campaign: Leicester and Clermont away, and then Munster, had all gone south.
"It's not about persuading our team they can win, it's about preparing the team that they go out and play to the best of their ability," says Humphreys.
"We've been tested at different stages. You know we didn't win at Welford Road, we didn't win at Stade Michelin, so going to Thomond Park is the biggest test we're going to face this year. Since round six of the Heineken Cup we've been talking about it and preparing for it; yes, we've had games in between but we all know this is the one we've all been looking towards, the one that everyone involved in Ulster rugby, whether administrator, player, staff, supporter, this is the one we've been looking forward to."
It's hard to say what percentage of those defeats could be ascribed to not being certain of themselves beforehand, or at key moments in the contests. There is no room for that sort of ambivalence today.
As the lassie in Ravers said, they have to believe it's doable. Otherwise, they'll get well and truly done.
Sunday Indo Sport