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Cunningham hoping to be agent for success at Ulster


One of new Ulster manager Bryn Cunningham's biggest tasks will be to ensure Belfast remains a high-profile destination for global stars. Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

One of new Ulster manager Bryn Cunningham's biggest tasks will be to ensure Belfast remains a high-profile destination for global stars. Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE


One of new Ulster manager Bryn Cunningham's biggest tasks will be to ensure Belfast remains a high-profile destination for global stars. Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

THE Ulster chief executive Shane Logan had something to get off his chest this week.

As some big noises from sponsors Kingspan - who have spent more than €6million of their hard-earned - listened intently, Logan sought to disparage the perception of a club lurching from crisis to self-imposed crisis.

After a summer of upheaval, which saw a raft of high-profile playing departures followed in quick succession by the exit stage left of a director of rugby and head coach, a period that prompted one to recall Oscar Wilde hinted at rank mismanagement from upon high.

The genial Logan sought to strongly demur, even though he admitted that the timing of David Humphreys' departure had come as a seismic shock, occurring just four days after Ulster had penned their deal with their new sponsors.

"David's departure came as a tremendous surprise," he told us. "But we were determined not to have a kneejerk reaction."

Many within Ulster would suggest that sacking the head coach, Mark Anscombe, so soon after Humphreys' departure and, as has been alleged, urged by the promptings of departing players, smacked precisely of panic.

Not so, according to Logan.

"We aim to develop a coaching and management structure to last five or six years. Les Kiss, our incoming director of rugby - he will arrive after the World Cup - will offer a different onfield focus, being tactical and game-focused."

Then he spoke about the final link in the new management chain - Bryn Cunningham, who will now assume many of the responsibilities so suddenly bequeathed by Humphreys before he upped sticks to join Gloucester.

With Logan speaking optimistically of a long-term plan to expand Ravenhill into a 28,000-seated capacity stadium in order to maximise Ireland's 2023 World Cup bid, the stakes are higher than ever before for the province.

Off the field, Ulster Rugby is booming - the facilities displayed to the media this week are undoubtedly world-class.

But, with Ulster already facing elimination from their European Champions Cup pool after a pair of opening defeats, it is on the field where Cunningham, until now an agent, will earn his corn.

Ulster have strived manfully to claim that the management upheavals in recent seasons have failed to undermine their efforts to acquire some silverware to adorn their progress.

An alternative view would propose that, following the heights of a European final in 2012, ceded to an unstoppable Leinster, an imminent appointment of a third coach in as many years belies this assertion.

This is the context within which Cunningham, the last retiree from the 1999 European Cup-winning team and a renowned full-back for 13 seasons, enters the equation.

Humphreys was in charge of recruitment and Cunningham, who retains close links with many of the province's players in his role as an agent, will be charged with maintaining that sequence.

While he may have inherited the post in a time of flux, and following a number of key summer departures such as John Afoa and Johann Muller, plus the retirement of Stephen Ferris, he has the advantage of knowing that many of his playing assets have already been secured until the end of next term at least.

Only Iain Henderson, Andrew Trimble and Stuart McCloskey, of the province's key front-liners, have yet to be tied down beyond the World Cup but there is optimism that the trio can be tied down imminently.

As a player, Cunningham was renowned as an authoritative full-back who thrived in adversity; these are traits which the 36-year-old will seek to renew in his new role.

Indeed, this writer recalls attending his dramatic European debut; ironically he replaced the injured Humphreys as an emergency out-half in the dying minutes of the 1999 quarter-final against Toulouse.

As a kid growing up in Bangor, he played football for the renowned St Andrews youth team, which was a starting point for many future Northern Ireland internationals, he was also proficient at golf, squash and hockey but his real passion and initial sporting aspiration was to become a tennis professional.

Attending Bangor Grammar re-routed that interest though and, beginning at scrum-half before developing the range and height of a more imposing back, he played at out-half before converting to full-back by the time he began studying economics in Trinity College.

He was still attending college - or at least scrabbling for lecture notes from fellow students - as Ulster advanced to that historic 1999 triumph; he started on the bench that day but brother Jan began the 21-6 victory in the centre before being forced off injured at half-time.

Barring occasional interlopers, Cunningham would eventually wrestle dominance of the 15 jersey for the next decade and many Ulster supporters would have perceived his lack of international recognition as a snub.

Persistent knee trouble eventually forced his retirement in 2010 and the 2005 Celtic League title remains the only other major honour secured by Ulster in the professional era; this season will mark the tenth anniversary of that triumph.

All the while, Munster and Leinster have conquered Europe and amassed honours with military regularity; Ulster have pretensions to smash that domestic duopoly but, if anything, they have slipped since reaching that European final in 2012.

They have also fallen short in a Pro12 decider against Leinster since then but the increasing uncertainty amongst the coaching fraternity - it remains to be seen which of current head coach Doak and the incoming Kiss will assume majority control of on-field decision-making - has palpably undermined their progress this term.

Cunningham cannot directly interfere with on-field matters but he will be charged with ensuring that Ulster remains a high-profile destination for global stars.

Persuading another player of the calibre of Ruan Pienaar to sign - particularly a back-rower - would be a statement of intent as the former agent begins life on the other side of the negotiating table.

Irish Independent