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Enforced transition for Ulster

10th June 2014 09:43

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David Humphreys Ulster

Changed Ulster: David Humphreys

When the news came through on Saturday, it was greeted with perceptible dismay and disbelief within the Ulster rugby fraternity.

The shock announcement that Director of Rugby David Humphreys is leaving the club to take up a prestigious position with Premiership aspirants Gloucester has sent profound shockwaves throughout an incredulous Ravenhill fan base.

Following hot on the heels of last week's equally momentous news that their iconic Ravenhill fortress has been renamed Kingspan Stadium, a palpable sense of transition is currently pervading Ulster rugby followers.

We have witnessed two massive developments, therefore, for fans to assimilate in less than a week. As the surprise and disappointment dissipates, Ulster rugby is left to contemplate exactly where recent developments leave them in their quest to become a dominant force in European rugby.

While assessing his side's current predicament, Shane Logan, the Chief Executive of Ulster Rugby, must surely appreciate that rugby in the Province is in a considerably better state than when Humphreys joined the backroom staff six years ago.

Indeed when the former Irish fly-half ended his stellar playing career in 2008 to assume the position of Operations Director, Ulster Rugby was in definite need of renewal. The club had not made it out of the pool stages of the Heineken Cup since their solitary victory in 1999 (when a side captained by Humphreys overcame Colomiers in the final), and had only secured one piece of silverware since that occasion; namely the Celtic League victory of 2006.

When Australian coach Matt Williams departed Ravenhill six years ago, the Belfast-based side certainly weren't the contenders they are today. Most worryingly of all from an Ulster perspective, a succession of excellent indigenous players like Neil Best, Tommy Bowe, and Roger Wilson, had left the Province for the green pastures of the English Premiership.

While another trophy may still elude the Ravenhill cabinet, the upturn in playing fortunes can be traced directly to the magnificent work subsequently undertaken by their Director of Rugby; in terms of both performance and recruitment.

Once appointed, the erstwhile Irish pivot made wasted no time in beginning his quiet revolution. Brian McLaughlin replaced Williams as head coach and, and Humphreys (in tandem with his chief executive) started putting in place the playing structures, and support facilities that persist to this day.

The Academy and under-age systems were transformed, with the Ravenhill franchise placing a massive emphasis on nurturing and developing native, home-grown talent.

This overhaul was significant enough in itself, but it was in the areas of talent identification and recruitment that Humphreys unquestionably excelled. The Ulster hero used his vast network of international rugby contacts to bring global names to Ravenhill, world-class operators like Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, and John Afoa.

But just as significantly, Humphreys reversed the unwelcome trend for player defections, bringing prodigal sons Wilson and Bowe back into the fold.

And on-field success invariably followed, the undoubted high point being Ulster's Heineken Cup Final appearance in 2012 where they were outclassed by an experienced and wily Leinster side.

While they may not have yet accumulated more silverware, the transformation of Ulster Rugby under Humphreys' command has been quite pronounced.

The Irish club has reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup four years in succession, and last season topped the Pro12 regular season table.

Combined with the multi-million pound redevelopment and upgrade of Ravenhill, the progress on the pitch attests to a team going places.

What a pity then that the chief architect of this renaissance will not now see his grand plans come to fruition, with the attainment of tangible silverware.

With the departure of key players like Muller, Afoa, and Tom Court at the end of this season, it already felt like the end of a chapter at Ravenhill. The departure of Ulster's venerated Director of Rugby merely reinforces the impression of flux.

But the mild-mannered and self-effacing Humphreys can take immense pride in the fact that he leaves his beloved Ulster in an immeasurably better condition than existed when he initially moved upstairs.

The cherry and whites of Kingsholm are indeed getting an accomplished operator: erudite, and intelligent; yet tough and decisive when the situation requires.

If there is one consolation for Ulster supporters in a mood of palpable disappointment, it is that the club has managed to retain the services of talisman, Pienaar.

This masterstroke, and so much else besides, will be the enduring legacy of David Humphreys' time at the helm. How ironic that one of his most important interventions as Ulster Director of Rugby was also one of his last.

By @RoryMcGimpsey

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