Brendan Fanning: 'One man has become the poster boy for Ulster's transformation - and he could be wearing green soon'
The New Year in Ulster in 2018 will be remembered like a human pinball experience, bouncing from one collision to the next. No time for any Head Injury Assessment: bang, off we go again.
By Christmas the It's A Knockout experience had been in full flow with the breakdown in working relations between their coaches. Supporters' confidence in the team was shot, and around the corner was the kick-off to the Belfast Rape Trial, a nine-week slugfest that would leave the organisation in Accident & Emergency. By the time that concluded two of their stars, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were about to be exiled by the IRFU; the coaching door in Ulster was still revolving; and the chief executive had the engine running and was preparing to pack his personal belongings.
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The good news was that in the last game of that 2017/18 season they managed to cling on to their place in the Heineken Champions Cup, beating Ospreys - coached by Allen Clarke, who a few months earlier had been part of the set-up at Kingspan. In the circumstances a crowd of 7,000 was a decent turnout.
At the time there was some debate about whether that win was a bonus or another stick to be beaten with, for the prospect of being battered the following season by Europe's best was real. Still, better to be scrapping for crumbs at the top table then looking in the window. And by then they would have another 'new' coach, in Dan McFarland.
Even that operation wasn't straightforward. The background to the coaching saga had been the breakdown between Les Kiss and assistants Neil Doak and Allen Clarke, to be followed by Kiss surviving the fall-out with Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel replacing the two lads. Then Kiss moved on to be replaced by Gibbes, who also packed his bags pronto - ostensibly for New Zealand only to change direction to La Rochelle. It had an Anywhere But Ulster feel to it. So there was a distinct air of resolution about the announcement last season of the three-year deal with McFarland. Eh, the only issue was when the three years would start.
Getting McFarland to Belfast meant extracting him from Scotland where he was assisting Gregor Townsend with the national team. His exit clause wouldn't be served until January 2019. Relations between the SRU and IRFU had a Serbo-Croat vibe ever since the Scots backed France rather than Ireland in the bid to host the 2023 World Cup. Lovely stuff. A compromise was reached. Everything in Ulster was a compromise of some sort.
If you were to set up Ireland's four provinces in a downtown office block you'd put Leinster in the penthouse, with queues of talented wannabes snaking down every stairwell all the way to the ground floor. Munster would be a few floors down, with a broad, corner office offering nice views. But they are impatient to upgrade. Like Leinster's, their gaff is well fitted out, but it's an organisation with far less spending power.
Connacht are on the ground floor. They are functional, but no more than that. They have plans but until they are realised it gives truth to the often misused cliché of it being a hard place to go.
And Ulster? Well, there isn't a rugby journalist in Ireland who hasn't reached for the Shane Logan line. "Top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and indeed the world," their former CEO had announced in his mission statement. Typically this would be trotted out when measuring the significant distance between Ulster being top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and the world. If Logan had uttered that line in a Jimmy Cagney accent it would have been perfect.
His legacy was to get project Kingspan Stadium over the line and to make sure that the pounds, shillings and pence added up. The disturbing thing was how little feel he had for the business of heading up a professional rugby organisation in a part of the world where it meant a lot more than just business. When it came to explaining that to the media - a basic for any CEO - he had the touch of Edward Scissorhands.
Logan was off the premises by the time McFarland arrived in late August 2018, after Ulster had started their pre-season programme with a loss at home to Gloucester. So, a new CEO in Jonny Petrie, a former Scotland international whose immediate policy was to engage with those around him; and, at last, a new head coach. There was a lot to be done.
After four games unbeaten in the Guinness PRO14 that might have seemed more hill than mountain. Then Munster put 64 points on them down in Thomond Park. Everest came into view.
As we roll into the '20s, with a trip to Clermont - one of the most forbidding grounds on the European circuit - on Saturday, Ulster are out of intensive care and moving about the ward unaided. On Friday night in the Guinness PRO14 they packed the place out for the visit of Munster - the second sell-out of the season - and, aside from a cleverly conceived and executed try by Shane Daly for the visitors - never looked like skipping a beat.
They went with more A-Listers than Munster, but to be short Marcell Coetzee and Jordi Murphy in the back-row, and still to be so driven and effective as to be out of sight comfortably inside the hour, was illustrative of where they are at in their heads. So, heading to France Ulster are second in Conference A of the PRO14 with seven wins from 10, and in Europe they are, remarkably, four from four and topping Pool 3.
It's worth asking how this has come about in a squad that has not been transfused with rich blood. Rather McFarland has concentrated largely on improving the flow of what's already in stock.
He was helped by the natural clean-out of an old guard of Ulster players who had been there since before Ravenhill considered becoming Kingspan, who had grown up in the place, who considered it their own. That's a hard nut for a new coach to crack. Also he knew that if he could improve morale and make incremental improvements on small things then the aggregate would make a difference.
Galvanising the group has been a big issue. Body language counts for a lot in sport so he encouraged players to celebrate the magic moments when they occurred. This is not as easy as it sounds for choreographed happiness is from the same school as the declaration that the beatings will continue until morale improves. Whatever, Ulster seem to have the balance right. They look and feel like a team who are playing for each other. For the fans, those optics are important.
Some stuff McFarland didn't need to dwell on: defence coach Jared Payne was well thought of by the players, as was Dwayne Peel. Forwards coach Roddy Grant had worked with McFarland in Scotland and skills coach Dan Soper was nailed on for another two years. All were earning their corn.
There hasn't been an influx of marquee names. Instead McFarland largely has had to shape what he has and promote from within. Given that Ulster's Academy has not exactly been a brand leader, and the province's throughput from the youth system across a region with nine counties throws up far more questions than they can answer, this doesn't sound like mining a rich seam.
A dozen Academy lads have seen senior service across the last season and a half. In itself that's extra pressure for the senior group. The spine of McFarland's starting team - Herring, Coetzee, John Cooney, Billy Burns and Will Addison - have been very good. Well, the halfbacks struggled a bit last season but are flying now. As for Addison, he is by a distance the form fullback in the country and, along with Herring and Cooney, is short odds to start the Six Nations against Scotland.
If you're looking for a new poster boy, however, then Friday night threw up the main contender. In the Joe Schmidt era Stuart McCloskey didn't rate. He was good enough to get to the outer reaches of the Ireland squad where his shortcomings suddenly would appear in neon, and he would be returned from whence he came.
The funny thing is that the attributes that got McCloskey noticed - a serious talent for ball sports of all shapes and sizes - are the ones his teammates rave about. Talk to lads in that environment and they rave about McCloskey's skills and the job he does for them. He should hire a PR team to take his title of the Bangor Bulldozer and bury it somewhere under a pile of rubble.
Maybe in the Andy Farrell era McCloskey will get some traction as an all-rounder. If so he is sure to have a few provincial teammates for company. As we turned the corner into January two years ago that kind of talk would have passed as delusional. It's not ringing any alarm bells now.
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