ULSTER HEAD INTO the 2014/15 season with a sense of uncertainty looming overhead, but the province’s key decision-makers believe they have played their smartest hand by removing Mark Anscombe as head coach.
David Humphreys’ unexpected exit as Director of Rugby just over three weeks ago sparked Ulster chief executive Shane Logan into a detailed examination of the value of the man Humphreys had chosen to replace Brian McLaughlin in 2012.
“If David Humphreys was still at Ulster, there’s no doubt Mark Anscombe would still be here,” said a source within the province. Logan and other influential judges were of a different mindset, however, and the decision was swiftly formulated.
Anscombe returned from his summer break in New Zealand to be welcomed by news that his services would no longer be required, Ulster activating a clause in his contract that allowed them to release him with a year still left to run on it.
The former New Zealand U20s coach is understandably displeased at the decision, although that sentiment is not shared among the playing staff at Ulster. Senior players were “anecdotally” involved in Logan’s interview process, while there has been widespread pleasure at the appointment of Les Kiss on an interim basis.
The likes of Rory Best, Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe have strong relationships with the Australian and are understood to be excited by the prospect of working with him day-to-day.
Given the short time frame until the 2014/15 season kicks into gear and the relative lack of realistic candidates on the market to take over at Ulster, the prospect of Kiss remaining in charge at Ulster for the entire campaign exists.
There are “no fixed terms” in the former Australian rugby league international’s agreement with Ulster, and with a “great buzz” around the Ulster camp at news of his impending arrival, Logan is unlikely to rush into a decision.
Kiss is currently at home in Australia on holiday, but has already contacted Ulster’s existing coaching staff to request detailed profiles for every player in the squad. Furthermore, he has spoken to the province’s strength and conditioning staff about the standards and improvements he will expect in the coming weeks.
The fact that Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is Kiss’ boss muddies the waters greatly. Who is really calling the shots at Ulster? Will Schmidt dictate to Kiss what he wants focused on in training? Will he influence team selection?
With Kiss having to balance his commitments between provincial and international duties, some Ulster fans may wonder whether time will be invested on longer-term planning in the province.
The players themselves are unlikely to be heavily concerned with those issues. The professional rugby world is one of day-to-day action, consistent focus on improving. In that regard, the appointment of the highly-regarded technician Kiss is a plus.
Away from the pitch, Logan will have his hands full in making intelligent plans to replace Humphreys and Anscombe in the longer-term. The presence of promising coaches like Neil Doak and Jonny Bell in Belfast offers encouragement for the hands-on role of head coach.
Perhaps more importantly, Ulster must decide how to move forward with the Director of Rugby role. Is this a purely organisational position? Should the DoR have a say in team selection, training planning and those multi-faceted rugby elements?
Humphreys certainly played a major part in helping the province to progress in recent years, but where are Ulster to find the man to drive that growth even further? As Anscombe departs from these shores without great sympathy, Ulster’s next moves must be intelligent.
What’s your take on the situation in Ulster? How would you like to see the province move forward?