Friday 15 December 2017

Fragile Ulster have a lot to learn

There will be plenty of twists and turns on Brian McLaughlin's journey to success, says Brendan Fanning

RAVENHILL, Friday night, Ulster v Scarlets: We are barely into December and Brian McLaughlin's team had reached a fork in the road.

Turn left and they would lose touch with the five teams making the running for the top four of the Pro 12. With a trip to the RDS on St Stephen's Day next up in this competition, it would make for a grim Christmas.

Nor would it have positive implications for their struggle to qualify from their Heineken Cup pool, which they restart in Belfast on Friday night with the first of their back to back ties against Aironi.

Turn right, however, and they could keep track of the leaders in the Pro 12. And they would feel better about repeating the 10-point haul they took against the Italians last season, a return which took them clear of the pool stage for the first time since winning the competition in 1999. More than that, they would save their season, for to lose here would have spelled the end. Nobody up there was admitting it, but it was that stark.

Consider how McLaughlin felt then in the endgame. At 24-10 and with 10 minutes left, he reckoned it was safe in the immediate term to make a few changes, and wise in the short term to get a few frontline players he will need next Friday in the Heineken Cup off the field. Playing 10 minutes less doesn't sound like much time off your feet but the final few yards in any game is a dodgy period for injury to tired limbs.

And what happened? One replacement, the big, bruising and promising Adam Macklin, was binned within a minute of coming on for John Afoa. Then, after Ulster had conceded a set-piece try specifically because they had only two men in the back row, Paddy Jackson -- the small, skilful and equally promising 19-year-old outhalf -- bogged out on the full a kick he needed to bounce into touch. Did it slip his mind that the ball had been taken back into the 22? Was he not aware of how fraught the circumstances had become?

A few minutes later, the game had been made safe, but the post-match reaction was instructive. Having made a horrendous start, in which they conceded two tries in the opening 10 minutes, Ulster had rattled up 24 unanswered points. And still they were petrified that it would all go south.

Fragile. That's the best way to describe this team. They brought out any big gun that was available and failed to blow away a Scarlets team that came to Ravenhill with a unique record, among Welsh regions, of eight games unbeaten, and, coincidentally, were missing eight internationals in the bid to make it nine. Wales' money-spinner against the Wallabies in Cardiff yesterday had drained the colour from the Scarlets. Nobody seemed to be mentioning this in the post-match analysis.

Much of the fragility surrounds their coach. It would be wrong to say that McLaughlin got much of the credit for Ulster's progress last season. Rather, the combined circumstances of a negotiable pool (Biarritz, Bath and Aironi) and the strongest squad Ulster had ever assembled, were seen as the reasons for the Red Hand still waving when the pools were wrapped up, along with getting to the semi-finals of the Magners League.

Certainly those who put him in the job didn't overestimate his contribution. They offered him a one-year extension on his two-year contract. Having cut his ties with RBAI, after exhausting his leave of absence from his teaching job, McLaughlin wasn't exactly in a position to say no. And Ulster were in the mood to say no more than, 'well yes -- for a while anyway'.

So he faced the new season under pressure, and then suffered a few body blows. First, he lost not one of the Bokke, but two. He hadn't planned on Johann Muller being called up by South Africa, which is why he had been named as captain in the absence of Rory Best, who was always World Cup-bound. Ruan Pienaar went too. And spent most of his time watching other people play. Then he came home and had hardly warmed up when he pulled his hamstring.

At least he made his return off the bench on Friday night, unlike Jared Payne. The Kiwi centre was seen as the missing link in Ulster's backline. Now literally he is just that, having ruptured his Achilles 15 minutes into his third game. To complete the set, Paddy Wallace's torn thumb tendon needed surgery which will keep him out until next month.

So the coach was struggling along, clocking up almost as many league defeats in three months as they had suffered in the whole campaign last season.

Between the Heineken Cup defeat in Welford Road and the Pro 12 loss in Firhill, Ulster had back to back games where they were nip and tuck going down what Eamonn Coghlan used to call the final straightaway, only to lose. The killer try they conceded against Glasgow was so naïve it was hard to fathom.

That was last weekend, and gave rise to further murmurings about where the team is headed. Ulster have always been quick to make changes to their backroom. Since the European Cup win in 1999, they have altered some element of the coaching set-up inside every two seasons: in chronological order they went from Harry Williams to Alan Solomons to Mark McCall to Matt Williams, and then two and half seasons ago turned to Brian McLaughlin. Yet, along the way, there has been any amount of shuffling around the top man.

Jeremy Davidson was the most recent to find himself out on his ear. When he was turfed last year, it is understood that Rory Best had hoped the money could be spent on a scrum coach, similar to how Leinster and Ireland have benefitted from the presence of Greg Feek. Instead, operations director David Humphreys, who likes to fly well under radar, opted for another player -- enter Payne. Meantime, Muller took more responsibility for coaching the forwards.

Humphreys has huge ambitions for Ulster. He has assembled enough cash to buy big, and he needs to see a return on that investment.

It complicates the situation that his younger brother Ian is at the controls on the field, for consistency ain't his thing, and it took McLaughlin a long time to warm to the idea of having Humphreys junior at 10.

He was up and down again on Friday, even if his five from seven shots on goal put some distance between him and the two critical shots he missed against Glasgow last weekend. And that's the thing with Ulster. You never know what you will get -- it is wrong to say that they flop when the stars aren't there, for even with them on board their fans troop into Ravenhill nervous about what's going to unfold.

Often they are plain hard to watch, such is the lack of accuracy in their game. Around them is developing a fine stadium which, when the old stand is replaced in two years with Government assistance, will demand a successful team to do it justice. By then the capacity will be circa 17,000. That's double what they are pulling in now.

Embarking on this journey is a two-way street: Ulster need the facilities to attract new fans, and get them to spend more cash, but they need the team first to become more familiar with the territory of last season, namely the closing stages of the Heineken Cup and Pro 12.

Brian McLaughlin needs more than luck to match that combo this season; he needs to create the impression that he is as important to the progress as the players brought in from aboard. There are more turns to come on this road.

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