What next for Ulster Rugby?

Date published: September 24 2014

What does the return of interim boss Les Kiss to the Irish national set up mean for the future stewardship of Ulster?

The IRFU and Ulster recently confirmed what everyone suspected: namely that interim Director of Rugby, Les Kiss will be returning to his full-time role as Irish defence coach in time for the November internationals.

So far, so mundane, then, from a pundit’s perspective. After all, the arrangement was only intended to be temporary, and the highly-regarded Kiss is contracted to the IRFU as an assistant to national coach, Joe Schmidt until 2016.

But, from the fans’ viewpoint, the more pertinent question is this: where does this announcement leave the future stewardship and management of the Ulster rugby team?

You may recall that the antipodean Kiss was parachuted into the Ulster set-up in June to oversee a review of the coaching structures, following the shock departures of Kiwi coach Mark Anscombe and Director of Rugby David Humphreys.

It seems that Humphreys’ exit, in particular, was completely unexpected, sending considerable shockwaves throughout the corridors of power at Ulster, and Irish rugby generally.

It was in the context of this monumental vacuum in management, that the amiable Kiss was introduced into the Ulster set-up, ostensibly to perform the operational role vacated by Humphreys; whilst allowing the Ravenhill hierarchy to commence its search for a high-profile replacement for Anscombe.

Kiss’s short-term appointment was very well received by players and fans alike, and undoubtedly the Irish assistant is perceived as an innovative and intelligent coach by those who have worked with him.

The former Queensland rugby league star is evidently fondly regarded by Ulster’s players, and during his brief secondment to Belfast, the 49-year-old defensive specialist has obviously made an impact on the Ravenhill playing staff. Hence the reason why some fans are a little bemused at Kiss’s hasty retreat back to his day job as one of Schmidt’s lieutenants.

But Kiss’s appointment was only ever meant to be transient, as a means of giving the Ravenhill power brokers some breathing space while they handled the fallout from the unforeseen disruption of the summer.

As disappointing as the news may have been to some, Kiss was always going to return to Dublin once his temporary assignment in Belfast had been completed. The more perplexing question is: why was Kiss sent to Ravenhill in the first place, when he only going to have an infinitesimal window to affect any meaningful change?

After all, when Anscombe’s departure followed hot on the heels of Humphreys, the obvious path seemed the retention of the existing coaching set-up (Neil Doak, Jonny Bell, and Allen Clarke) in a caretaker capacity whilst chief executive, Shane Logan searched for a candidate of sufficient experience to replace Anscombe.

The unexpected introduction of Kiss seems to be an acknowledgement that such cosmetic tinkering was insufficient, and that the unprecedented dual departure of Anscombe, and the man who appointed him, necessitated a more strategic rethink.

It must be remembered that it was Humphreys that masterminded the recruitment, and retention of playing talent at Ulster, and although the head coach was charged with the day-to-day running of the team, the operational aspect of Ulster’s management was the exclusive preserve of the former Irish fly-half.

Therefore when the self-effacing Humphreys left to take up his prestigious role with Premiership side Gloucester he left a gigantic void in the administration of Ulster rugby. Humphreys’ departure, moreover, created a quandary for the the Ravenhill hierarchy.

Do they persist with their heretofore successful structure, with a Humphreys figure behind the scenes of a head coach who is front and centre? Or do they simply amalgamate the two roles, and appoint a head coach who is responsible for recruitment and playing strategy, as well as coaching? Such a structure operates in Munster and Leinster, for example.

Kiss was brought in by the IRFU; it seems, to give its counterparts in Ulster some breathing space while they weigh up these fundamental questions.

Schmidt’s assistant has indeed inputted some much-needed structure to an Ulster squad still reeling from last season’s shock exits.

But now we know (despite rumours to the contrary), that next month Kiss will also pack his bags, and head back to the cosseted environs of Schmidt’s Ireland camp.

But where now for his adopted Ulster squad? As of last week, Ulster rugby sources were still indicating that Anscombe’s replacement has not yet been chosen. Initial signs had been that the Ravenhill authorities would opt for an experienced campaigner to succeed Anscombe, and illustrious names like former All Black assistant, Wayne Smith have been mentioned as potential candidates by some.

An Irish Times report last week, on the other hand, argued that the incumbent Doak had emerged as the front runner to take over.

Either way, an announcement is expected in the next couple of weeks, and will put an end to the palpable uncertainty.

Ulster fans will hope that the incoming boss (whoever he is); will continue the venerable work undertaken by interim boss, Kiss.

t is obvious that the Sydney native has done an exemplary job in restoring order to a discomfited Ulster squad. It is also true that despite some changes in personnel, there remains the nucleus of an excellent side at Ravenhill for his successor to shape.

Reasons for optimism still abound, therefore, but one hopes that the best man for the job isn’t decamping to Dublin next month instead.

By @RoryMcGimpsey