Tuesday 22 October 2019

'I won't be offending anyone's sensibilities' - Ulster rugby's Scottish CEO takes diplomatic line before vital clash

Ulster Rugby chief executive, Jonny Petrie. Photo: John Dickson / DICKSOND
Ulster Rugby chief executive, Jonny Petrie. Photo: John Dickson / DICKSOND

Jonathan Bradley

Given the vital World Cup clash between the two countries on Sunday, it's probably not a great week to be a Scot working in Irish Rugby but at least Jonny Petrie can cite strength in numbers.

A proud Dundonian and a former captain of the national side, the Ulster CEO is the most prominent of his countrymen operating under the IRFU's watchful eye, although he is far from alone at Kingspan Stadium.

The recent connection between the province and the thistle really began with head coach Dan McFarland, the English-born former Connacht stalwart, having essentially sacrificed his own trip to Japan when leaving his role as Gregor Townsend's forwards coach to take up his role in Belfast.

Petrie soon followed, replacing Shane Logan almost a year ago, while Roddy Grant was recruited to the coaching ticket this summer. Even the side's new Marketing and Communications manager joins having held a similar role at Edinburgh.

Still, Petrie says he'll be doing his best to hide in plain sight between now and the weekend.

"I'll be keeping the head down for sure," he says. "I won't be offending anyone's sensibilities or anything.

"I'll definitely be watching the game from the comfort of my own home."

Of Petrie's 45 Scottish caps, four were won at the World Cup of 2003, special moments in a career despite a resounding defeat at the hands of soon-to-be finalists Australia in the last eight.

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And while his rugby recollections don't quite stretch back to the 1991 tournament meeting between Ireland and Scotland, he can offer insight into the rivalry through the prism of taking part in five Tests between the pair.

"It was never a happy hunting ground going over to Dublin in those days but they were enjoyable trips," he says.

"It was a time when there was a really great generation of Ireland players coming through and it made for some tough matches against them during a time when Scottish rugby wasn't at it's peak but there was always a great rivalry I felt.

"I think (it's because) you see that huge connection between Scotland and Ireland, Scotland and Northern Ireland particularly in many aspects. There's always this rivalry and tension but that familiarity too. Having sort of lived in both now, I can attest to that similarity for sure.

"Historically in rugby terms we're probably pretty similar too and it's been great from an Irish perspective to break free of that history of in many respects not having a great team or even just underperforming to what we've seen over the past ten years. They've delivered a huge amount of success at key times and Scotland have not quite reached that point yet of delivering on the biggest stage or in those crunch away games in a Six Nations.

"In a way there's a lot that Scotland can look to Ireland for, in terms of that model, but just in what they've achieved in particular over the past five years."

If Scotland are to achieve anything at this World Cup, it's clear it will be done in Gregor Townsend's vision. The former out-half hasn't quite delivered the end product he did at Glasgow since assuming the top job in 2017 but remains committed to the idea he wants his side to play the fastest rugby in the Test arena.

As a player Townsend was a well established part of the national team, and indeed the Lions, by the time Petrie came on the scene, instantly struck by his more experienced team-mates' seeming ability to see into the future when compared to those around him.

"I mean, Gregor was always a brilliant thinker. At the time I think he was labelled as mercurial and it stuck, thought of as someone who could either win you or lose you a game but I always felt there were a lot of times when it looked like Gregor made a mistake it was actually because he was just thinking ahead of the everyone else on the pitch. Everyone else almost had to pick up around him and that didn't always happen. Would I have thought at the time that he'd be so quick to become head coach of Scotland? Probably not at the time but he was always a very intense character.

"He's the type of coach that you see teams looking for now, someone who has that detail in their approach. The doubling down on that intensity is beyond where he would have been as a player but coming through as a coach at Glasgow, you could see what he was developing into, and that's a world-class coach. He's had the success at club-level with Glasgow and the next step is transferring that to an international level which always takes time because you don't have the guys day to day. He'll have loved the run up to this, getting to work with his group every day throughout the summer, both culturally and in terms of physical prep.

"He'll have them in good shape in all facets."

Enough to catch Ireland cold and seize control of the pool?

"This isn't a cop out but I find it really tough to forecast, I genuinely don't know," Petrie concludes. " I think Ireland go in as favourites but over here, the self-doubt after the England warm-up has been there. Scotland weren't great themselves against France so it's tough to read exactly where everyone is at. Based on their ability to deliver on the big stage, Ireland should do it but Scotland play best as underdogs."

One wonders if such diplomacy will last much beyond kick-off on Sunday morning.

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