Wednesday 17 January 2018

'Sometimes in life you have to take a little bit of a risk' - David Humphreys

David Humphreys shocked Irish rugby when he left Ulster for Gloucester. He tells Ruaidhri O'Connor that the time was right to move

David Humphreys
David Humphreys
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IT'S A question about whether David Humphreys left Ulster to force himself out of his comfort zone that makes the Gloucester director of rugby most uncomfortable.

The former Ireland fly-half is ostensibly on the other end of the line to talk about tomorrow's Challenge Cup quarter-final between his side and Connacht, but his first meeting with an Irish side since his shock exit from his beloved home province means the topic is unavoidable.

Humphreys was the driving force behind Ulster's Heineken Cup win in 1999 as a player. When he retired in 2008 he set about restoring the northern province to those heights as operations director and then director of rugby.

Although silverware wasn't won, he helped oversee the complete transformation of a team who reached the Heineken Cup and Pro12 finals and were unlucky to come across a Leinster team at their very peak.

And then, last summer, he dropped a bombshell and moved to the West Country, leaving Ulster stunned. Ten months on, the sight of the 72-times capped Ireland star in the stands at Aviva Premiership games remains a strange one, but he felt the offer to change scenery came at the right time.

"I'm not sure it necessarily took me out of my comfort zone, it was a challenge and it was unexpected for me. The opportunity arose and it wasn't something that I'd been planning to do, it wasn't something I was looking for," he recalls, after a long pause, of a hectic summer.

"It came up at very short notice and I just felt it was the right time for the club and for me to make that change. I think that you could say I was moving out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I look at it very much as a different challenge.

"As a player I spent a long time playing at Ulster. Looking back, I don't regret it at all. I had the best years of my life playing rugby there but I wonder what it would have been like to challenge myself in a different environment. So, when this opportunity came along I felt this was the right one and I'm keen to expand my experience."

That experience has been mixed to date. Gloucester are currently sitting fourth from bottom in the Premiership after winning seven out of 18 games.

Things have gone better in the Challenge Cup where they sailed through the pool stages with a 100pc record. The secondary competition remains the club's last chance of silverware this season and only route to next season's Champions Cup.

Humphreys (right) sees his time at Kingsholm as a long-term project to revive the historically successful Cherry and Whites even if things haven't quite gone to plan.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed the change of environment, I was with Ulster a very long time and for both the club and for me it was a good time to make that change," he said.

"They are a club that have great ambition and the group of players that are here, they're good to work with and they're desperate for success - they're young and enthusiastic.

"So, it's been a good time to come here, there has been a lot of changes across the summer - 26 new players, six or seven new coaching staff coming in so it's been about getting to know people, how everything works and what makes them tick both on and off the pitch and that takes time."

The role remains similar to the one he held previously, while the task is a familiar one too. Overseeing a coaching staff that includes former Munster forwards coach Laurie Fisher, Humphreys is the figurehead.

"The role at Ulster evolved," he explained. "When I first started I certainly didn't envisage getting to the point where I finished up and the role that I finished with at Ulster was probably quite similar to the one that I'm doing over here, but again it's within a very different structure.

"It is not under the same control that the union would have had, that's not necessarily a bad thing, just it's a different structure and the club's run a different way. It's different to the Ulster role, but there are still major parts that are the same.

"Gloucester have a similar squad to the one Ulster did back in 2008, but the game has evolved off the field from a commercial point of view, a funding point of view; so much has changed in that short period of time that it's quite hard to make a good comparison between the two.

"The club has all the foundations in place to be a successful team, had been at the top of the English Premiership a number of times, so we knew coming here that it was going to be a bit of a long haul. Everybody talks about how it takes a bit of time to build a squad - we've had a complete change in philosophy in terms of how we want to play and throughout the course of the season there have been some matches where we think we're moving forward and on the whole we probably have.

"But there's games again like last weekend (the 23-6 defeat to Sale) where suddenly you don't get a performance that you expect and you question what you're doing a little bit, but we're very confident in the long term that we will turn the team around."

That loss was a set-back and Humphreys is looking for a response tomorrow night against a Connacht side he knows well and believes have improved hugely in recent years.

"The Connacht question has always been a part of the discussions with the IRFU that I have been part of over the last couple of years, where they sat alongside the other three provinces," he recalled.

"For a long time they were clearly the No4 in terms of how they were treated and I think that has changed significantly in the last two years in terms of the funding, public recognition and most importantly the players they've recruited.

"They've recruited in some really good players, players with experience who have come from very successful teams. Pat (Lam)has brought a very different view and has successfully changed the way Connacht played traditionally. As evidenced by where they sit in the Pro12, they're now a serious team.

"They're very well coached and will be a very big challenge."

With the prize a home semi-final, both sides know their chances of silverware rest solely in the Challenge Cup. For Humphreys it is the chance to help convince the Shed faithful that he is taking their club in the right direction.

"This was an opportunity came along at the right time, for me and my family to do something a little bit different," he concluded. "Sometimes you've got to take a little bit of a risk. Of course there was a risk involved in coming here, but it's one I'm excited by. It's a great club, there's a lot of great people working here and we're determined that over the next couple of years we can turn Gloucester around and that the club will be back competing at the top end of English rugby."

Irish Independent

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