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A 14-year drought: how Ulster bounced back after a fall from grace

Bad luck, bad injuries and some awful decisions finally led to a painful realisation in Ulster that they needed to try something different. Their re-emergence has been a long time coming.

Ulster players celebrate last week's semi-final win
Ulster players celebrate last week's semi-final win
Image: Ian Rutherford/INPHO

THE RUGBY WORLD had an entirely different look to it in 2006. Biarritz, Perpignan and Stade Francais were considered European giants, Leeds Tykes ended up closer to a Heineken Cup quarter-final spot than Saracens and the PRO14 had yet to venture south of Swansea never mind the equator.

And it was Swansea where Ulster ended up for the final game of that year’s Celtic League, needing a last-minute drop-goal from David Humphreys to take the title ahead of Leinster, who – back in 2006 – were regarded as a side who could always be relied upon to muck things up when it mattered.

Yet as Brian O’Driscoll and co trudged away from their own game in Murrayfield that Friday evening, a wry, bitter, self-mocking humour gave way to clearer thoughts and new expectations. Like Ulster, they had one Celtic League on the 2006 edition of their CV. Unlike Ulster, they had yet to win the Heineken Cup.

Things were about to change. Across the following 14 years, Leinster collected 10 major trophies, 10 more than Ulster managed. Worse again, from their Belfast vantage point, Ulster have seen so many others enjoy success: Ospreys (on three occasions in the PRO14); Munster – both in Europe and domestically; Glasgow; Connacht; Scarlets.

It should have been different, given how 2006 was meant to be a starting point rather than a full stop. After all they had the players – a young Tommy Bowe was the league’s joint-top try scorer that year; Rory Best had emerged, so too Andrew Trimble and Neil Best. Aside from the players, they also had the coach – 39-year-old Mark McCall collecting the first trophy of what would become a glittering career.

the-ulster-team-celebrate Ulster celebrate their 2006 Celtic League success - their last trophy. Source: Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

Sadly, unforgivably, tragically, that first trophy was also his last with his home province. Within 18 months, he was gone. “That is such a short period between success and him being out the door,” says Paddy Wallace, one of nine Ulster players to be capped by Ireland during McCall’s time at Ravenhill. “And looking back now, had we done things differently then who knows what would have become of us? Mark has become Europe’s most successful coach since that point (winning five Premierships and three Champions Cups). Put it this way, we certainly haven’t had that success.”

**

A rugby coach is like a fashion accessory, trendy one season, binned the next. So when Joe Schmidt started landing trophies for Leinster and later Ireland, every chief executive in the Northern Hemisphere got their catalogues out and started shopping around for the next Joe.

Mark Anscombe was certainly like Schmidt ….. in the sense they are both from New Zealand. To be fair, Anscombe’s 72 per cent win ratio at Ulster, was impressive, yet it is the games they lost that have stuck in the memory, a 17-15 defeat at home to Saracens in the 2014 Heineken Cup quarters; a 24-18 loss to Leinster in the 2013 PRO12 decider; another defeat to Leinster in the following year’s semis.

“That was the best Ulster team I played on – the one in 2013 and 2014,” Wallace says. “But the stars weren’t aligning. You think about that 2013 PRO12 final. We’d finished top of the league in the regular season but not being able to play the final at home was such a huge factor. Worse again was the fact it wasn’t even played on a neutral ground. When we heard it was going to be at the RDS, we were thinking, ‘come on!’

“Aside from all that, we always had an issue with Leinster. We just couldn’t beat them in the games that mattered, the same with Saracens.  Now give them credit, too. It’s one thing having resources but Leinster have married talent with a culture of success. We’ve got to learn from that.”

fergus-mcfadden-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Joy and dejection: the story of Leinster and Ulster in 2012 and '13. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It’s only lately that they have started to do so. Before then, Ulster were hopping from coach to coach and from one philosophy to the next.

McCall was home grown; Matt Williams, his successor, was not. After Williams, they once again went for the local option, choosing Brian McLaughlin, who steered them to the 2012 Heineken Cup final. His reward was to see Anscombe replace him. Then it was Australia’s Les Kiss on a temporary basis, then Neil Doak, then Kiss again. Finally Jono Gibbes was in charge a month when he told Bryn Cunningham, Ulster’s operations director, that he needed to go home to New Zealand. “We’re close to rock bottom,” Cunningham said at the time.

Things had to change. They placed an emphasis on youth. Bowe, Trimble and Chris Henry all retired in 2018; Jean Deysel was moved on. Plus, there was the small matter of sacking Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

“After that infamous year, they have set about building a new culture,” says Wallace.

And for once they made the right decisions. Think of the calls they got wrong during their trophy famine – McCall, later McLaughlin. Think back too to 2010, when Ulster started to get good again on the back of a couple of world class signings, Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller.

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A year later, another World Cup winner, John Afoa, joined – and from 2011 through to 2014, Ulster were continually knocking on the door. But with Ulster, problems were never far away. There was ill luck – Jared Payne’s sending off against Saracens in 2014, the bizarre and downright wrong decision to move the 2013 PRO12 final to Dublin.

But look deeper at that period. Short-term thinking was prioritised over long-term planning and when Muller, Wallace and Stephen Ferris all retired in 2014, the additional decisions to ship out Afoa and Tom Court left a leadership vacuum. It wasn’t until Dan McFarland arrived that the latter pair were adequately replaced, the former prop cum new head coach making it a personal mission to turn Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole into genuine players.

He has done so – albeit after some teething troubles, O’Toole taken to school by Connacht’s Denis Buckley on one forgettable October night during McFarland’s first year. But McFarland stuck by him and others. The reward is that O’Toole as well as three players he handed senior debuts to – O’Sullivan, Michael Lowry and James Hume – start tonight’s final. 

tom-otoole-celebrates-after-the-game-with-michael-lowry O'Toole (l) and Lowry (r) were handed their debut by McFarland. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

 “I’ve been so impressed not just by what Dan has done but also Bryn,” says Wallace. “I mean look where they were coming from. They’d just scraped into the Champions Cup via a play-off. Straight off, they instilled their own culture, placing their trust in young players, exposing them to top-level rugby in Dan’s first year, essentially saying ‘if you learn from this, we’ll back you’.”

Better again, they backed McFarland in the transfer market. Whereas before, in the 2010/11 period, they prioritised marquee signings, this time they opted for depth and while Ian Madigan, Alby Mathewson, Marty Moore, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Billy Burns, Will Addison and Matt Faddes don’t excite the marketing men the way Pienaar did, the policy has worked.

“Spreading the resources was a clever ploy,” Wallace says. “When Ruan was here, if we were losing a game, there was no way he was ever going to be taken off. Now, with John Cooney and Alby, there are options, the same at out half with Madigan and Burns. You need that depth, especially at half-back, throughout the season. We all saw last Saturday in Edinburgh the difference that a good bench can make.”

The result is that Ulster are back in a final, their first in seven years. “It is not a question of history for us,” McFarland said yesterday when asked about Ulster’s wait for a trophy. “Instead, it is a case of us knowing as a group if we win a title, we’ll remember that moment forever. As a group, we have our own identity.”

To reinforce that, McFarland asked for a giant mural of a wolf to be painted on an internal wall at the Kingspan – a symbol of how he wants his team to hunt in packs. He has asked the players to read The Call of the Wild, a century-old novel about a pet dog that is stolen and then survives an Alaskan winter. That’s what McFarland is looking for, his players to be ‘street dogs rather than home dogs’.

Specifically, tonight, he wants these promising new boys to mature into winners.

“Silverware is a distant memory for anyone in the current playing squad,” his captain, Iain Henderson, said yesterday. “Rob Lyttle chatted earlier this week about how he is looking forward to putting an end to the wait. Well, we’re all feeling that way.

“We have been building the intensity in our training over the last months, if not the last few seasons. I don’t think we are anywhere near where we can get to yet but I do believe we are on a massive upward curve. It’s about making that count.”

Of course, we’ve had this conversation before with Ulster, in the 2012 Heineken Cup final, and the 2013 PRO12 decider. Each time they lost, each time to Leinster.

That’s why Henderson’s thoughts drifted west yesterday.

“Connacht’s win in 2016 was an inspirational game, something we would potentially take a lot from because we are under no illusion that we are underdogs for this one. But we do take massive confidence from the fact these guys can be knocked over. Anything can happen in finals. That 2016 decider proved that. Connacht toppled them. We can too.”

Paddy Wallace is a financial adviser with St James’ Place Wealth Management

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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