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'He used to bully the hell out of me! He really scared me, frightened me actually'

Ulster coach Niall Malone on Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill and all things in the northern province.

AMONG ALL THE changes that have happened at Kingspan Stadium over the last few years, there’s been one constant.

Niall Malone Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

He rarely takes the headlines, nor is he usually the one thrust in front of the weekly media briefing, but Niall Malone has quietly gone about his business behind the scenes as Ulster’s video analyst and skills coach.

Initially part of the Academy system, Malone made the move into the senior set-up and has since been the one member of the coaching staff to endure the various culls that have occurred.

First he saw Brian McLaughlin axed, then Mark Anscombe given the boot, and he’s just watched Les Kiss depart Belfast for pastures anew. And yet here he still is, by now part of the furniture at Ulster Rugby HQ.

“I think I’m on my third or fourth head coach in six years so I’m aware my head’s not on the parapet, I’m ducked away safely somewhere most of the time!” he laughs.

Why is his record of outlasting head coaches so important right now? It could just be the fact that, come May, he may be surviving another if the rumours that the Wallabies are after Jono Gibbes prove to be true.

With Mario Ledesma jumping off the Aussie bandwagon to take charge of Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, Michael Cheika is on the look-out for a new scrum coach, and reports from New Zealand suggest Gibbes is the one he wants.

The last thing Ulster need is more coaching changes, something that’s not lost on Malone, who launched a passionate appeal for the former All Black to stay and continue the good work he’s started in Belfast.

“I’d be absolutely gutted if there was any truth in (the rumours), I really really mean that,” Malone said.

“I didn’t know Jono eight months ago and the two of us get on really well, so that’s a personal thing, but the influence he has on the players… if he stays it’s going to be so successful, and I really hope the speculation is just that. I’m just really hopeful he’ll be here for a long time.

“I think there’s potential in the coaching group with Aaron, Dwayne and Jono leading it. I think they get a good response from the guys, and I think those three are… they didn’t know each other that well before this season but they’re very tight as a trio in supporting each other.

“I think they can get a huge amount out of the players they’re working with, and I think it’s absolutely crucial they stay and continue the work they’ve started because they’ve only been here six months for 20 games, so they’re only getting going.

“There’s definitely a lot of respect coming from the players towards that group of coaches and I really hope that continues.”

Among the subtractions to the coaching staff, there has been one addition, albeit unofficially.

Ulster's Jared Payne scores his side's second try Source: CameraSport/Simon King/INPHO

Ireland centre Jared Payne — who’s still sidelined with chronic headaches — has stepped in to assist with the defensive side of the game, taking a much bigger role within team meetings to pass on his well-regarded rugby intellect.

The British and Irish Lion has long been considered by his peers as having one of the best rugby brains in the squad, and his willingness to take over an area that Kiss would have led before his departure speaks volumes of his ability.

“He’s sort of stepped up this week, as a player he was like a coach on the pitch as it was, and in team meetings he would always lead so that’s been seamless,” Malone revealed.

“The key thing is I think every single person in the squad thinks he’s the best player or one of the best players we have, so when he speaks everybody listens.

“It’s been really interesting watching him because he’s always contributed so much as a player, as some of the senior players do, but now he’s almost got this official title of being coach. I can’t wait to see how the team responds to his coaching because on the training pitch it’s been really interesting – not a huge change to the influence he’s always been.

“He’s having his lunch with the coaches now so he’s getting a bit of ribbing! But if he can sort our defence out and improve it then I think we’ll all be very happy with that.”

Ignoring staffing changes and centres filling in coaching roles for the time being, Ulster do have what is increasingly looking like a must-win clash against Edinburgh this Friday that requires all of their focus.

With the Scots just three points behind Ulster in the race for third place in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 after their impressive bonus point win over Leinster, a loss for the hosts would be catastrophic for their European hopes next season.

But for Malone, there’s a personal aspect to this match-up.

“He used to bully the hell out of me!” he laughs when recalling his time with Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill, whom he was a team-mate of during their team as players with the Leicester Tigers.

“He really scared me, frightened me actually. I went to his wedding so we must have had quite a good relationship by the end of it but he used to bully me to pieces. I remember him well.

“He’s turned them around. I was amazed when he went to Edinburgh. I couldn’t really see the link between him and Edinburgh when it was announced, but he’s done really well. You can see his characteristics coming through.”

The grizzled Englishman earlier in the week demanded at the start of the season that his Edinburgh side earn the respect of the rest of the PRO14 — this week he finally admitted they had it.

As Malone says, the characteristics of a Cockerill side are evident – their pack have been turned into a dominant force, much like his Tigers sides of old, with the backs not shy of getting involved in the dirty work either.

Niall Malone Source: Presseye/Andrew Paton/INPHO

No longer will this be seen as a straightforward win for the Irish province, as it may have been in the past, particularly with the issue of backing up good performances weighing heavy on their shoulders this season.

Their nine-try 59-10 win over the Southern Kings last week looks impressive on paper, but the difference between the winless South Africans and the fearless Scots is as stark as day and night, meaning Ulster have to up their game this weekend.

“Up front (Edinburgh) look like an old-fashioned Munster team, they look tough and rugged and they didn’t use to look like that,” Malone admits. “That’s what characterises (Cockerill’s) personality and I think he’s had an instinct impact, making them more aggressive and more competitive.

“They’ve been more impressive than any time that I’ve been in this job. They had good fortune (against Leinster) but they’re the best Edinburgh team we’ve played in a few years.

The coach added: “We try to look above us rather than below but there’s only a three-point gap and we play them twice so the games are going to be significant.

“But the Scarlets play Leinster, then us. They’ve got a difficult run and if they were to lose in Dublin (and Ulster win against Edinburgh) then we’d be going there knowing a win would take us ahead of them. Before last week, that didn’t look likely.

“We all have hard games to come, and we all play each other, so we know any win will take points off guys we’re vying with. There’s a lot still to play for.”

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