Tuesday 18 December 2018

Brendan Fanning: Ulster need squad overhaul and off-field revamp

Jono Gibbes Photo: Sportsfile
Jono Gibbes Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When Michael Cheika signed up Jono Gibbes as his forwards coach at Leinster he took a circuitous route to the task. Gibbes, not quite finished as a player, thought Cheika wanted him as a veteran on the field rather than a new man in the coach's box. It was well into the exchange when the smoke cleared and Gibbes was suddenly embarking on a new chapter in his career.

So when, last November, the Ulster head coach got a call from the Wallaby head coach he wasn't too surprised that there was a follow-up. The phone call had been no more than a catch-up, but soon Gibbes's name was being linked with a Wallaby forwards job that already was filled. Cheika being Cheika, you wouldn't be too sure what items were on his agenda.

When the rumour reached Ulster last month it was greeted with resignation. Mark Anscombe, David Humphreys, Joe Barakat, Les Kiss and now Gibbes: if you were an agent then that four-year period would have had you looking at Kingspan Stadium every other day for news of the next opportunity.

Gibbes's knockback of the Australia connection was missing a vital link, however: the bit about him not just knowing nothing about any job Down Under, but having an interest only in seeing out his contract with Ulster.

And sure enough the absent paragraph was explained by the news last week that Gibbes was heading back to New Zealand for family reasons. The groans of the long-suffering Ulster fans could be heard in IRFU HQ on Lansdowne Road.

And that's appropriate, because Ulster won't turn any corner without a dig-out from head office, who must be looking at the long list of what needs to be fixed up there. The union have a case to answer for their role in Ireland's second-biggest province slipping under the waterline.

Gibbes, it is understood, will take up a job with his home province of Waikato. Going from Pro14 in Europe to sub-Super Rugby in New Zealand is an unlikely career move. Perhaps the bleakness of the Ulster landscape combined with domestic business back home made it a gimme.

Of course Ulster is fixable, but it won't be quick. And maybe it's as well that process starts with a brand new coach rather than one who looked uncomfortable when the man who hired him, Kiss, was turfed.

It remains to be seen what will happen to backs coach Dwayne Peel and scrum coach Aaron Dundon, both of whom have a year to run on their contracts. If somehow Ulster find the right man for the job - and specifically they want a head coach rather than a director of rugby - will he be happy to arrive solo and work with what's there?

And what's there on the playing front clearly is not up to it. Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy will help next season, but the absence of leaders in the playing group has compounded the lack of depth.

You look at a player like Nick Timoney, a terrific athlete and a very good prospect, and want to see him in a back row where he is learning from two veterans rather than having to lead from the front.

And further down the food chain the lack of development is compounded by the malaise that extends beyond the pro set-up and into the All-Ireland League. With no clubs in the top division of that competition, how can Ulster's academy players learn their trade at a decent level? Tommy O'Hagan for example - a very promising prop forward - should be battling in Division 1A and not three rungs down, where he spends his Saturdays with Rainey Old Boys.

If the Ulster side need, as a matter of urgency, a loosehead, a second row, a number six, an outhalf and a back three player, then off the field they need to look and sound like a professional rugby organisation.

It's inconceivable that the IRFU will not want some questions answered by Ulster CEO Shane Logan on his role in all of this. It seems remarkable in a time of crisis how the man at the top of the tree has been so hard to see.

Meantime, beneath him, there is a revolving door leading to the coach's suite, and great big gaps in the playing squad. This will probably get worse before it gets better.

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