Sunday 18 February 2018

Comment: Ulster in need of much more than a change of coach

Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile
Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

In time, Les Kiss will look back on his time with Ulster and wonder how so much could go wrong in such a short space of time.

In 2014, while still the Ireland defence coach, the Australian chatted candidly about how the northern province was the one to watch and the coaching job within Irish rugby that excited him most.

Months later, he was unveiled as the successor to Mark Anscombe who was shown the door soon after David Humphreys had left.

Highly respected as a coach and well liked as a person, Kiss seemed an excellent appointment. Joe Schmidt didn't want to lose him and kept hold of him until after the 2015 Rugby World Cup which meant Neil Doak would hold the reins until he was free to arrive.

He could never have imagined the series of events that would unfold and result in him leaving his position, officially by mutual consent, on the same day five of his Ireland internationals attended Belfast Crown Court; two of them facing rape charges and three others offering support.

Kiss has faced huge criticism since the results started going against his team and he would not like excuses to be made on his behalf, but it cannot be denied that circumstances have gone against him.

In pure rugby terms, he inherited a squad that boasted some big names but lacked depth in certain departments.

Ulster were reliant on one or two figures for go-forward ball and their biggest signing, Marcell Coetzee, has barely played due to chronic knee problems.

Having carried the team on his back on so many occasions, Ruan Pienaar was shown the door by the IRFU and while John Cooney has come in and done well, the Springbok was a key leader in the squad and a hugely-respected figure.

Last season, he instigated a clear-out behind the scenes amid rumours of in-fighting between his backroom team, but now he is being replaced by the man hired to breathe life into the squad, Jono Gibbes.

All this unfolded against a backdrop of a trial that hung over last season and came into sharp focus when the accused pair Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were "relieved of their duties and obligations" by the IRFU in July, against the wishes of some senior players. Both men deny the charges.

While there are far more serious issues at play, the head coach was left with a huge hole in his squad and the presence in training of two players under huge scrutiny.

Kiss will be the first to admit that the results were not good enough. Crowds at the Kingspan Stadium have been down this season and the mood has been funereal at times.

In 2010, Ulster chief executive Shane Logan stated his ambition that the province be "top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and the world" but eight years on they appear further away than ever.

Their academy production line has ground to a halt, meaning they have had to look south for players and they now undergo another regime change as Gibbes takes over.

It is clear that Ulster need far more than a change of coach to revitalise their fortunes.

With Christian Leali'ifano gone, the province's long-term recruitment plans are up in the air and their immediate goal of securing a play-off place in the Guinness PRO14 is far from certain.

Kiss might be better off out of it, because Gibbes has a massive job on his hands.

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