There is no question that, for Ulster fans, players and management alike, getting to the Heineken Cup final is a heck of an achievement, and despite the stabilisation of the club over the last couple of years, it was probably a year or two sooner than most of us would have expected.
Given the leak about the plan to replace Brian McLaughlin at the end of the season, and the subsequent enforced announcement earlier in the season, Ulster Rugby are in the slightly unusual position of replacing the head coach who has overseen this impressive achievement. It seems counter-intuitive, and will appear the more so if Ulster were to win the cup!
A lot of people – from fans, to journalists, even to some players – have expressed a measure of scepticism, or disapproval. Hugh Farrelly seems to have seized upon it as the latest stick with which to beat Ulster, but across the board the consensus is in a range from sympathy for McLaughlin, through puzzlement, to outright condemnation of the decision.
I think it’s an interesting situation, and counter-intuitive though it may seem, I think the decision to replace McLaughlin is the correct one.
From where we are standing today, you can certainly argue for a positive evolution in performance and results. The 09-10 season was stabilisation and turnaround, but was touch and go, with the last part of the season descending into a dogfight with Connacht for a HEC place. The 10-11 season was a marked improvement, with a top 4 finish in the league, and QF in the HEC. And the current season has seen further improvement in the top-end matches, arguably at the expense of a challenge for a play-off spot in the league.
However while on McLaughlin’s watch we have indeed witnessed some of Ulster’s high points – notably the performances against Leicester at home and Munster away this season in the HEC – we have also witnessed some lamentable lows, even fairly recently – the home defeat to Treviso just this season was arguably the worst performance by an Ulster team I have ever seen, and that is saying something after the last decade. More generally, ignoring these extremes, results and performances have remained patchy; at no point this season have we embarked on a really telling run of wins.
Some things have improved: strength & conditioning appear to be top-notch, with Ulster now an extremely fit, physically strong side. Defence has improved, at least in the big games, as we have seen in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. While there has been something of a perception that McLaughlin instinctively prefers a forward-oriented, safety-first territorial game, at times Ulster have come out of their shell and played some lovely rugby. And one thing that McLaughlin has managed exceptionally well is the judicious introduction of young talent into the senior side, with a number of players in their early 20s now solid members of the squad.
Performances on the pitch have however been patchy, with impressive performances often followed up by indifferent, error-strewn performances. While 3 years on, McLaughlin has developed a tough, streetwise pack, with a well-organised defence, Ulster rarely seem to take the initiative in matches, and rarely command possession of the ball for long spells and build pressure. Ulster still kick a lot of possession away, sometimes well, often not so well. While overall skills have improved this season, this has been an ongoing weakness, all the more surprising given McLaughlin’s background.
I wasn’t a big fan of McLaughlin’s appointment at the time – it smacked a bit of ‘jobs for the boys’, with the coaching ticket seemingly stitched up between a bunch of mates and insiders (McLaughlin, Humphreys, Doak, Davidson, Bell, Longwell). However in retrospect he was a good choice – a sensible, pragmatic, hard-working Ulsterman, who got the squad’s collective feet back on the ground, and steadied the ship.
If the leak had never happened, would Ulster still be intending to replace McLaughlin? I think probably not. However I do think, churlish though it may sound, that it is the right decision. I think McLaughlin has probably taken the squad as far as he can, and we need a head coach to take us on to the next step: to instil skills/techniques more deeply and evenly throughout the squad, and to develop a more progressive gameplan that relies less on ceding possession, and defence.
I think the proposed sideways move for McLaughlin to head up (?) / assist with (?) the academy has a lot going for it – developing this channel of players, given the direction of travel of the IRFU, assumes critical importance, and McLaughlin, a distinuguished schools coach, now with considerable experience of top-flight professional rugby, could be the man to up the Ulster Academy’s game.
So if McLaughlin is to move aside, is Anscombe the man to take Ulster Rugby on? I have no idea, and I’m not sure that anyone does. But the benchmark against which he will be measured has shifted up by quite a ways since he signed!