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10 months after leaving, Ulster's most iconic hero describes his Premiership challenge

It was a tough decision for David Humphreys to leave Ulster for Gloucester.

Humphreys made the switch to the Premiership club in the summer of 2014.
Humphreys made the switch to the Premiership club in the summer of 2014.
Image: Inpho/Billy Stickland

EVEN THOUGH IT has almost been a year since David Humphreys was appointed Director of Rugby at Gloucester, it’s still strange to see him working out of a coaching box in England’s West Country rather than at Ravenhill.

Humphreys is one of Ulster’s most iconic heroes, having won Heineken Cup and Celtic League medals during a ten-year career with the club before working behind the scenes for a further six seasons.

Humphreys initially joined Ulster’s backroom team as the Director of Operations but was the club’s Director of Rugby by the end of his tenure, a position he know holds with Gloucester in the Aviva Premiership.

The former out-half’s decisions to swap clubs was a big surprise last summer, especially because he was leaving a team stocked with young talent who seemed poised to make an imminent breakthrough.

Humphreys says that leaving Ulster wasn’t something that he had been planning, but once a chance came up, it made him evaluate what he was doing.

“We had been pretty successful at Ulster over the last few years considering where we were when I started and this job came up on short notice,” Humphreys told The42.

“I felt it was the right time to make the move. It was very difficult to leave. I hadn’t thought about leaving at all until this opportunity came up because we had been on an upward curve at Ulster. I took a few days and chatted with the owners and my wife and decided to make the move. Opportunities don’t always come along when you expect and I thought it was time to move on.”

Both Ulster and Gloucester have struggled at times since the move. The Belfast-based province failed to make it out of their Champions Cup pool for the first time since 2010 while Gloucester currently sit ninth in the Aviva Premiership.

But the Cherry and Whites host Connacht in the Challenge Cup quarter-final tomorrow night and winning Europe’s second-tier tournament could provide a route into next season’s marquee competition.

GloucesterÕs James Hook Results have been mixed in Humphreys' first season at Gloucester. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Gloucester have some very talented players in their squad, especially in the backline where they can pick Greig Laidlaw, James Hook, Billy Twelvetrees and Jonny May.

And Humphrey’s thinks that while the results haven’t been as good as he had hoped, building blocks have been put in place by head coach Laurie Fisher ahead of next season.

“I’m not sure what expectations I had coming over really,” Humphreys said.

“It has been really hard to judge apart from the results – and from that point of view things have probably been a little disappointing. But internally, we feel that if you dig a little deeper, we have definitely improved. Some of the performances have been very good and the recruitment we have done ahead of next season will make us better. It is very hard to deliver instant results.”

Recruitment is a big part of Humphreys’ job and he appears to be a shrewd judge of talent for the most part. Ulster’s South African trio of Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar were all great additions to the side while Jared Payne has gone on to be an Irish international.

Humphreys is right to be optimistic about next season’s new signings as two have performed consistently in Super Rugby. Jeremy Thrush has been capped 11 times for the All Blacks in the second row while fullback Tom Marshall is one of the league’s more underrated attacking threats.

marshall

But besides getting out the checkbook, there are other aspects to working inside the framework of the Aviva Premiership that are different to what Humphreys experienced in the Pro12.

“Well the big thing is that Gloucester is owned – when you are at Ulster you are working under the IRFU who have a say in what you can do,” Humphreys said. “That doesn’t make things more difficult or easier. It is a huge strength for the national team and it is why Ireland have been so successful recently.”

In a few years time, Humphreys will have been in the coaches box longer than he was a professional rugby player and you experience the highs and lows of the game completely differently in the two roles. When he was a player, it was crucial that he get his own job right on matchday. But as a Director of Rugby, the most important thing is that he gets everybody else at the club firing.

Jeremy Thrush All Black Jeremy Thrush is one of Gloucester's big signings ahead of next season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That challenge is something he enjoys.

“I’m responsible for 90 people here,” Humphreys says, after a long pause, when asked what element of the Director of Rugby role he likes the most.

“Every day is different and presents new challenges. One thing is that it might be easier to build a team to do well for 2-3 years, but we want to get more guys coming through the academy. There are a lot of people playing rugby in this region and we want them coming through our academy and playing for Gloucester.”

Humphreys commends tomorrow’s opponent for the way they have integrated underage talent into their first team and thinks Connacht’s coaching staff have done a good job at building a squad. The quarter-final clash at Kingsholm is a big game for Gloucester as Champions Cup qualification would give them another financial boost as they look to keep up with the rest of the Premiership.

Humphreys knows that winning a trophy in his first season would be a big launchpad from which to execute his vision for next year.

“I have always maintained that on-pitch success drives everything,” Humphreys said.

“The better you do on the pitch, the more people will come and watch you. The more people who come and watch you, the more sponsors you can attract. The more sponsors you can attract, the more money you have for recruitment, facilities and the academy.

“This league is so tough that you need to build a squad that can sustain a challenge for the entire season.”

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