Uncertain new era for Ulster

Date published: July 1 2014

The exits of David Humphreys and Mark Anscombe within weeks have left Ulster's long-term structure up in the air.

The exits of David Humphreys and Mark Anscombe within weeks have left Ulster's long-term structure up in the air ahead of next season.

Sceptical coaching changes are nothing new at Ravenhill; just remember the uproar two years ago when Brian McLaughlin was shifted into an academy role after guiding the province to a Heineken Cup Final.

Anscombe was sacked on Monday by Ulster after two years in Belfast, despite recently signing a one-year extension.

Humphreys departed Ulster back in June to become Gloucester's new director of rugby, after spending the last 16 years with the province including his playing days.

That kind of service is rare in the modern era, making his exit whilst lamentable also easy to comprehend, his dedication earning him the right to explore new opportunities.

Now starting out at Kingsholm with Gloucester, Humphreys is in charge of a club who have a concrete belief that they deserve greater success than recent years have given them.

The story at a now David Humphreys-less Ulster isn't dissimilar. Following the Heineken Cup campaign of 2012 and the departure of McLaughlin, Ulster have been baying for silverware.

Reports that senior players felt the squad had gone as far as they could under Anscombe's tutelage, combined with the outgoing Humphreys and certain players leaving all appears to have made the New Zealander's position untenable – much to the open frustration of his son Gareth.

“Pretty disappointed to hear about the way the old mans been treated at @UlsterRugby, how do you expect to get success at a club when you have clowns at the top making decisions like this.”

Despite reaching the Pro12 playoffs and Heineken Cup knockout stages, Anscombe has lost out in both years to Leinster and Saracens respectively.

His one-year contract extension to take him through to 2015 seems now to have been worth nothing once the news surrounding Humphreys' future was revealed.

Ulster therefore head into the new season without a head coach or director of rugby in place, although that structure may be discarded moving forward – something for chief executive Shane Logan and the professional game committee to work out over the coming weeks.

While the race is on for a permanent man on the top, Ireland assistant coach Les Kiss has been handed the temporary reins to a squad that has lost props Tom Court and John Afoa, while the trio of Johann Muller, Paddy Wallace and Stephen Ferris have all retired.

Their recruitment has been solid, carried out under Humphreys before his exit. Franco van der Merwe has been signed to replicate Muller's influence in second row while Louis Ludik and Ian Humphreys, brother of David, bring experience. Bringing back Ruaidhrí Murphy from the Brumbies might be the best move of the bunch.

Ulster have an abundance of international talent and a strong spine built around Rory Best, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson. That's before considering the talent out wide in Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and Jared Payne. But a clear head and finalised structure at the top is needed sooner rather later.

July is not the time to be searching for coaching staff, hence the momentary arrival of Kiss – although his attention will be divided with the November Tests on the horizon. Promoting promising young coach Neil Doak into the head coach's role would feel a little premature.

Ulster have been ruthless in cutting Anscombe rather than playing it safe. Now they have to prove it was the right move.

by Ben Coles