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Jonny Bell excited by Ulster return after ‘incredibly challenging’ stint at Gloucester


Jonny Bell is glad he took the decision to experience new things

Jonny Bell is glad he took the decision to experience new things

Jonny Bell is glad he took the decision to experience new things

When it was revealed midway through the last campaign that defence coach Jared Payne would be leaving Ulster come season’s end for a job with French giants Clermont, most understood the motivation.

Having been in the system for the majority of his career as a player before becoming a coach, the move to the Top 14 represented a chance to experience a different rugby culture, to broaden his coaching horizons and to glean new ways of working.

In that regard, there is a sense that Jonny Bell’s appointment as his successor has the feel of something coming full circle beyond the European Cup winner’s prior two-decade long association with his native province.

When the former Irish centre left Ravenhill for Gloucester in 2015, his reasoning then was just as Payne’s is now and he returns feeling he learnt much on his travels.

"When I left here, I left to grow as a coach and as a person,” said the man who followed Gloucester with stints at Glasgow and most recently Worcester. “My mindset was, no matter how it goes for me across the water, I am going to be a better coach and a better person for it.

“Now, I had a few great years at Gloucester. Was it challenging? Incredibly so. I was working with different groups of players, coaches and I had to change and adapt to them. You find out a lot about yourself in the good and the bad times.

“It makes you come back and more experienced. If the experiences are good or bad, it steels you. But I am glad to come back and lend my experiences to this group of players to help in any way I can.

“I went away to get experience of a different league, experience different coaches and players and seeing things done different and taking myself out of my comfort zone. I had been with Ulster as a player and a coach at that stage for 22 years. A long time.

“Some people can stay in one place for a very long time and that is good, it’s great. I’m not saying for one minute that it doesn’t have to be the case.

“But for me, I wanted to take the time to take myself out of my comfort zone. I worked with Laurie Fisher, Johann Ackermann, Steve Diamond, different coaches and some quality players.


Jared Payne will leave his role as Ulster defence coach at the end of the season

Jared Payne will leave his role as Ulster defence coach at the end of the season

Jared Payne will leave his role as Ulster defence coach at the end of the season

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"Some have been brilliant and some have been difficult to work with. It all adds experience.”

For Bell, though, the ‘home’ coaching box at Ravenhill will always be appropriately named.

“It felt great,” he said of his first game back on the ticket as the northern province opened the URC campaign with a 36-10 victory over Connacht last weekend.

"My mum sadly passed away in 2017 and she had a great seat up in the Family Stand and she was an avid Ulster supporter.

"When I was at Gloucester, she would have called me and told me all about Ulster, how they were doing and giving off to me about how Gloucester had done at the weekend.

“So that was lovely, having that memory of my mum.

“Coming back here makes you appreciate the great place it is, how passionate the fans here are and the facilities are second to none.

“It felt really great and to top it off with a great win against a great side.”

The early returns for Bell were good, with Ulster conceding just one try and that from a breakaway late on when the hosts already had the game in the bag.

It will be different personnel against Scarlets at the weekend with the senior Irish internationals from the summer tour to New Zealand available once again but the nine-strong Emerging Ireland contingent now absent for the coming weeks.

As he looks to put his own stamp on what was already a strong defensive output, Bell has preached evolution over revolution.

"Defence, fundamentally, shouldn’t be a complex thing,” he said. “You have a system in place and they have to buy into that and you have to give them motivation. I think what Ulster had here with Jared was very good so a lot of the principles Jared had in place are similar to mine.

“What I am trying to do is make us better. How do we get that extra ten percent?

“Where do we give ourselves more of an edge, so that we get more opportunities offensively.

“Can we get the ball back a little quicker, can we transition so we get it to Rob Baloucoune, Jacob Stockdale and Michael Lowry.

“It’s evolving what is already a very good machine in many respects.

"Coaches, they don’t work in silos, they work together. The game is so inter-dependent. It’s not just ‘you are dealing with attack’ and ‘you are dealing with defence’. Yes, you lean on those areas of the game but we talk and we share ideas and try to get the game to be as joined up as we can.

“Defence doesn’t work unless we have a very joined-up system with the attack. And likewise we don’t want to be putting the attack under pressure so it is working together to get the best blend for the team.”

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