Sport Rugby

Thursday 25 April 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Some Ulster rugby supporters don't seem to understand the reasons for people's disgust

Former Ulster player Paddy Jackson
Former Ulster player Paddy Jackson
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Is it time to abolish Ulster? Not the province, just the rugby team. After all, the IRFU were going to give Connacht the bum's rush a few years back only to change their mind after protests from some recalcitrant Western types. Perhaps it's time for another bold decision.

Jacob Stockdale could be sent to Munster to add firepower in the absence of Simon Zebo, Iain Henderson could work on his second-row partnership with James Ryan at Leinster and Rory Best's experience and leadership qualities would be invaluable to Connacht. Who else is there to worry about really? Job done.

After all, Ulster are in such disarray at the moment it'll probably be more trouble than it's worth to set them right again. Director of rugby Les Kiss has left and interim head coach Jonno Gibbes will be on his way shortly. Both men arrived with high reputations. Former Ireland defensive coach Kiss seemed like a possible future Irish manager but his stock has fallen disastrously over the past couple of years. Gibbes, a huge success as forwards coach at Leinster and Clermont-Auvergne, is leaving with a year still to run on his contract.

So it's back on the managerial merry-go-round for Ulster. Six years ago they reached the Champions Cup final against Leinster but parted company with head coach Brian McLaughlin all the same. McLaughlin cut an unglamorous figure and there was lots of talk from Ulster about the need to become world class. So in came New Zealander Mark Anscombe. His time at the helm saw two qualifications for the Champions Cup knockout stages, one after a 100 per cent record in the group stages, a record unbeaten run and an appearance in the Pro12 final.

Not good enough apparently. After Director of rugby David Humphreys left for Gloucester, Anscombe was sacked and replaced by Kiss who subsequently became director of rugby. Neil Doak had a go as coach after Kiss before being replaced by Gibbes.

All the while Ulster got worse. Four years in a row they've failed to make the knockout stages of the Champions Cup, finishing bottom of their group last season. They've become increasingly irrelevant in the Pro14 where they will probably end up having to play off against Ospreys for a place in next year's Champions Cup.

I've seen it suggested that the Belfast court case and the resultant absence of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are partly to blame for Ulster's continued underwhelming form. Anyone making that argument should remember that last season Munster had to cope with the tragic death of their coach yet still made it to the Champions Cup semi-finals. They knuckled down, battled on and didn't feel sorry for themselves.

Self-pity never seems to be far away from Ulster. You might feel sorry for them if they didn't feel quite so sorry for themselves. Witness the players taking time out from underachievement last week to compose a statement about how 'sad' the sacking of Jackson and Olding makes them feel.

Meanwhile, a section of Ulster support has been blundering around the place and dragging the province's good name further into the mire. When a group of people concerned about the behaviour revealed in the Belfast trial took out a crowd-funded full-page ad in the Belfast Telegraph calling for Jackson and Olding to be sacked, 139 Ulster followers retaliated with one of their own supporting the players. The Ulster Rugby Supporters Club decided to tell us that the people who'd placed the first ad were not members of their club, as if this meant anything.

The club also threatened a boycott and called a protest in defence of the players which has now thankfully been cancelled. To make things even worse, they decided to survey their members and revealed that 79 per cent of them were either 'disappointed' or 'appalled' by the players being sacked, thus displaying their true colours to all and sundry. They will apparently be "writing to IRFU/Ulster Rugby next week to express members' considerable dissatisfaction and disgust at the recent turn of events."

Do these galoots not have any clue what their behaviour looks like to those outside the bubble? Are they not aware that this case has been reported and debated worldwide? Do they not know that there are many people for whom the first thing conjured up by the name Ulster Rugby is the comment by a woman alleging rape that she did not want to "go up against Ulster Rugby"? Can they not see that this case will take Ulster rugby years to live down? Do they not realise that the 'disgust' most people feel about the case has nothing to do with the contractual situation of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding?

You're left with the impression of a bunch of clowns who wanted nothing more than to see Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding run out at the Kingspan Stadium so they could give them the ovation of all ovations. What a great moment in Irish sporting history that would have been.

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