Sunday 26 January 2020

Humphreys desperate for Ulster to finally start bridging the gap to rivals with silverware

Northern legend hopeful ending seven-year trophy famine can be platform for era of sustained success

Key man: Johann Muller
Key man: Johann Muller
David Kelly

David Kelly

If most accomplishments are predicated upon a series of disappointments, then Ulster Rugby have had their fair share of the latter.

In fact, they've just about had enough. It is seven years since Ulster won a trophy. The man who helped deliver that thrilling triumph with a late, late drop goal against the Ospreys has assumed much of the responsibility for restoring the northerners' status.

If you push David Humphreys, now Ulster's director of rugby, hard enough, he will look back even further, to the province's breakthrough European success in 1999, and reflect regretfully on the club's failure to capitalise on that triumph.

"There's no doubt that we didn't make the most of winning the cup," he says. Humphreys oversaw Ulster's return to a European final last May but, long before that grand occasion, he had outlined a vision that would encompass more sustained success.

Ironically, his vision didn't include the man who would haul Ulster on a remarkable odyssey all the way to the Heineken Cup final in Twickenham.

And so, Brian McLaughlin led his side knowing that their greatest day since 1999 would be his last in charge.

Not surprisingly, Ulster were flattened by the machine that was Leinster in last season's final; it wasn't meant to frank Humphreys' decision with a comforting post-hoc justification. Yet it did just that.

Nevertheless, were the new coach not to, at least, emulate McLaughlin's achievements this season, would it be appropriate for Humphreys' actions to be questioned? Some supporters still argue strongly that it most definitely should; a quarter-final exit against one-dimensional Saracens added weight to their argument.

Ulster's goal at the start of the season was to win silverware; one chance has already evaporated, today represents their final opportunity.

Every single player has reiterated a running theme since Ulster saw off a poor Scarlets outfit in the semi-final of this competition.

"Not winning silverware will represent failure. We're desperate to win a trophy. We are judged on winning trophies."

Different lines, same message. Silverware will provide validation for so much – from the expensive recruitment of overseas players to the expansive development of the facilities. Ulster have become used to fielding criticism about how their cheque book has bought success and they have cited Munster and Leinster. There is an obvious difference – Munster and Ulster have won Heineken Cups.

The only way to bridge the gap is to fill it with silverware. Humphreys, coach Mark Anscombe and chief executive Shane Logan know this. Leinster can afford to lose today's final, but can Ulster?

There are mitigating circumstances; compared to last season's fairytale run, Ulster have developed a squad that is much broader and possessed of much more quality. Also, their presence as top seeds for the knock-out stages of the Pro12 reflects well on that squad's depth and also a consistency of performance that has been, more or less, maintained all season. There is a longer game here. But winning today's game would be most helpful.

Maurice Field, the former Ireland and Ulster centre, agrees with the argument that there needs to be some tangible return on investment, whether on overseas players or the Academy.

"We probably over-achieved last year in terms of getting to the Heineken Cup final," he says.

"The decision had already been made back in the previous October to replace Brian. Mark has come in and brought a very pragmatic, Joe Schmidt-like approach to the organisation.

"And yet they've potentially under-achieved this season in terms of the expectations within the squad. This Pro12 was one of their goals but so was the Heineken Cup, which by their own words ended in a shocking performance against Saracens.

"They want to make amends even if Leinster are strong favourites. If Ulster bring their A game, they have the skills and weaponry to turn Leinster over. If they want to be in the top five in Europe, they have to win silverware. You can't just get to finals and not win them. Guys like John Afoa and Ruan Pieanaar are used to success."

Fulfilling that sense of progression lay behind the appointment of Anscombe; today's final would be a prime time for the players to repay the vision of those who pay their wages.

"There's some truth in that," says Andrew Trimble. "We want to keep pushing on and the way to do that is to win something.

"We know that our big performances mean nothing if we don't win. Winning there (the RDS) already is brilliant for our psyche. In the past, we would have gone down there expecting a long afternoon. It's different now."

How different? We shall find out shortly before 7.0 this evening when Ulster will hope that, instead of disappointment, they can finally celebrate some real achievement.

Irish Independent

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