Sunday 18 November 2018

'Ulster the Arsenal of Irish rugby' - Stephen Ferris

Stephen Ferris with pilates expert Hayley Killen and Olympic athlete Jessie Barr at the launch of Outdoor Revolution, which will be Ireland’s largest outdoor sports, health and wellness event and takes place at the RDS on March 24-25. For more information, see www.outdoorrevolution.ie.
Stephen Ferris with pilates expert Hayley Killen and Olympic athlete Jessie Barr at the launch of Outdoor Revolution, which will be Ireland’s largest outdoor sports, health and wellness event and takes place at the RDS on March 24-25. For more information, see www.outdoorrevolution.ie.
David Kelly

David Kelly

The Phoenix Park obelisk could not be a more apt monument beneath which to discuss Ulster Rugby's latest stark failure.

Ulster met their Waterloo in Coventry last weekend; a few days later, one of their most famous sons, Stephen Ferris, clambers up the steps to sift through the entrails of another ruinous European escapade.

The famous old Duke won his battle though; Ulster seem incapable of firing a shot.

Even when they do, they usually follow it up by shooting themselves in the foot. Ferris, as usual, shoots from the hip.

"Everyone would agree, from fans to management, players and ex-players, that there is just something not right," says the former Ireland and Lions back-row.

"With the amount of talent that they do have, they are the Arsenal of Irish rugby. They are the underachievers. They can beat anybody on their day.

"They can physically dominate a La Rochelle pack at home but then back it up the next week with a terrible performance against Wasps, getting physically dominated at every collision and every breakdown and then when they did have the ball they didn't know what to do with it.

"Eddie O'Sullivan calls it the bungee cord, Ulster are up one week, down the next. But if you are going to try and sustain any kind of success, you can't be playing like that from one week to the next. It seems to be like all the players are singing off different hymn sheets on the pitch.

"Everybody aren't buying into what the game-plan is because I didn't see a game-plan. When I saw the terrible weather conditions, I was thinking happy days, I was rubbing my hands.

"I knew this Ulster team could match the Wasps team up front, make it an arm-wrestle, win 9-6 and you're into the quarter-finals. But they did everything but that. When they had the ball, they just didn't know what to do with it."

That's the small picture. The bigger one is worrying still. Ulster remain reliant on overseas talent and, despite the emergence of Jacob Stockdale, a sole beacon in a dismal time for a production line that has scarcely produced any internationals in recent times.

All Black World Cup winner Stephen Donald has pulled out of a move - Ferris strongly suggesting due to Ulster's European exit more than a reported injury - and he feels that young Johnny McPhillips should be given his head as Ulster seek to re-engage with a dwindling cultural identity.

"Any time Johnny McPhillips has had an opportunity he has looked bright. Maybe it is a better thing to stick that €200,000 in the bank, leave Stephen Donald alone and try to get the younger guys in to give them a chance to get experience.

Leadership

"With the Irish guys away now, who do Ulster look to for leadership? It starts from the top down, it's not all about Les Kiss.

"When Brian McLaughlin came on board in 2010, he made sure that everybody knew exactly what they were playing for and who they were playing for. And that has now fallen out of place and you can see that with the inconsistency.

"Look at the best teams, they have the best culture, they are enjoying their team environments.

"And it just doesn't look as if the Ulster team environment is a really happy place. If you go to work you are happy, you enjoy it more and you usually perform better.

"The Munster game at home, Ulster had one Ulster man from 1-10. Okay there are a few Irish-qualified players but they are all from overseas.

"Sean Reidy from New Zealand, Wiehann Herbst from South Africa, Kieran Treadwell is English, Alan O'Connor and John Cooney are from Leinster, Christian Lealiifano from Australia.

"Gone are the days when you had David Humphreys and Kieran Campbell at half-back, Roger Wilson, Stephen Ferris and Neil Best in the back-row. It all seems to have got away," added Ferris.

"The question I would ask is are one of those players better than the young Academy player lining out for Dungannon or Ballymena every week?

"You walk into the Kingspan Stadium and people are starting to talk about watching South Africa's B team instead of watching an Ulster team."

Irish Independent

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