I remember an article by Liam Toland, after Declan Kidney, in order to try to head off calls for him to appoint an outsider as an attack coach, instead appointed Les Kiss – the defence coach – to moonlight as the attack coach as well. So Liam said something along the lines of ‘In my day, the guy who coached attack, and coached defence, was simply called “the coach”!’, which amused me at the time. Things certainly seemed to be simpler back then; nowadays, as well as specialist attack coaches, defence coaches, kicking coaches, strength & conditioning coaches etc – you also have all manner of other ambiguously titled figures, most notably the ‘Director of Rugby’.
An added complication is that every coaching team is slightly differently configured, with different personnel, and greater and lesser degrees of overlap between similarly-titled guys at different clubs. All in all, it is very tricky from the outside to figure out exactly who does what, and who is responsible for what, in a given coaching ticket.
Such is the case at Ulster. For the last three years, on the face of it, it has been relatively straightforward: Brian McLaughlin was appointed Head Coach to replace Matt Williams in 2009, with Jeremy Davidson appointed as Assistant Coach (Forwards), Peter Sharp as Assistant Coach (Defence) and Neil Doak as Assistant Coach (Backs). Sharp left the club the next season and was not replaced, with Jonny Bell getting more involved in defence coaching the first team (his day job was an Elite Player Development Officer); and Davidson departed for the Head Coach gig at Aurillac in May 2011.
Enter the Humph
So far, so straightforward. The more mercurial element is David Humphreys. He was appointed as ‘Operations Director’ in June 2008, just after he retired from playing. Ulster’s press statement at the time said that he was to be responsible for negotiating contracts, ‘facilities provision’, and working with ‘senior administrative staff at Ravenhill, building the profile of Ulster Rugby both within the province and further afield, and particularly within the business community’. However, while he was to liaise with the coaching staff, he was not to be “…part of the team management panel”.
A year later, after the departure of Williams, at the same time as the announcement of the appointment of McLaughlin as Head Coach, an enhanced role for Humphreys was announced. In fact, re-reading the announcement, there is significantly more emphasis on the description of Humphreys’ role than on McLaughlin’s!
According to the announcement at the time Humphreys was to be responsible for: “Ulster Senior Team, the Ulster Ravens (formerly Ulster A), the Ulster U20s and the High Performance/Academy structure… overseeing all aspects of Team Management and preparation, ensuring Ulster are prepared to a world class level, and will work closely with the Head Coach on all aspects of training”.
McLaughlin, by contrast, was responsible for: “…training and team selection”.
The Boss Man
So within a year from being appointed as a back office man, Humphreys was now described as being responsible for pretty much everything at Ulster. Interestingly, this seems to have included training (one can imagine he might have received short shrift had he tried to intervene in training while Williams was there!)
Thinking back to that time (i.e. end of the 2009 season after Williams quit), Ulster were in some turmoil; not punching their weight on or off the pitch (with Mike Reid destined to follow Williams out the door just a few months later, with rumours of his having run a less-than-tight ship commercially). It’s not hard to imagine a certain vacuum of leadership – as to whether Humphreys saw an opportunity to step in and take the reins, or whether his was the only cool head, and those around him prevailed upon him to step up his role, who knows. He certainly emerged as a key figure, in fact the key figure, in the management of Ulster.
McLaughlin, then, from day one, was essentially working with (?) / for (?) a strong ‘Operations Director’. While he appears to have been given primacy to call the shots in training and team selection, Humphreys would have loomed large. At the time there was criticism of the new coaching ticket by some, including myself, on the basis that it smacked of ‘jobs for the boys’ – when what was needed was a determined outsider to come in and properly clean house. One wonders how many other candidates to replace Williams would have found the proposed set-up tolerable.
That said, the outcome was pretty good. The 2009-10 season was tough, descending into a dogfight with Connacht to secure Heineken Cup qualification; however the 2010-11 season was a marked improvement, with Ulster finally making the knock-out stages in Europe, and the play-off stages in the league. McLaughlin and team appeared to steady the ship, and at the end of the 2011 season, he was rewarded with a contract extension – albeit for just one more season, something which indicated fairly clearly that the writing was probably on the wall for him.
Humphreys’ influence during this time was most clearly seen in the new approach to NIQ recruitment – with some financial assistance from the IRFU, the focus was on recruiting top-flight internationals to provide a strong spine to the team during the rebuilding process, with Humphreys heavily involved in identifying targets and then negotiating contracts etc. This is a messy job, but judging by the players he delivered, one at which he has excelled – Pienaar, Wannenberg (superb signing after Rush back-tracked), Muller, the deft trade of Afoa for Botha, they have all contributed hugely to Ulster’s turnaround on the pitch. And the standard has been maintained with the signing of Payne last season, and the return of Bowe and Wilson (the jury is out on Williams, who is certainly lower profile than other recent NIQ recruits, but who could prove to be an extremely shrewd signing).
Chops and Changes
More controversially, Humphreys found himself in the spotlight half-way through the 2011-12 season when it was leaked to the press that Ulster were planning to replace McLaughlin at the end of the season. With things going great guns on the pitch at the time, and Ulster narrowly missing out on topping the Heineken Cup pool, this was seized upon as perverse and unjust by many commentators – some out of regard for McLaughlin, some others (who shall remain nameless) because they like any stick that they can beat Ulster with.
It soon transpired that the rumour had legs, and Humphreys and Shane Logan (CEO since Reid left in 2009) were forced into the open. It was a tricky defence to make at the best of times, seeming rather counter-intuitive (although I personally think that it was the correct decision), but it’s fair to say that their management of the sorry saga, stumbling from one contradictory, car-crash set piece to the next, is unlikely to be adopted as a case study of effective public relations any time soon.
With the cat out of the bag, attention turned to McLaughlin’s replacement, with a number of reasonably high-profile names invoked, including John Kirwan, Dean Ryan and Eddie O’Sullivan, as well as former Ravenhill favourite, Matt Sexton. The announcement of Mark Anscombe took everybody by surprise – yes he had known success with the NZ U-20s, but you could shave a monkey and stick him in a tracksuit, and he’ll win a JWC with the Baby Blacks! His time at Auckland wasn’t conspicuously successful, and he had been shown the door at the end of the 2011 season.
While I don’t think that a successful track record is necessarily a prerequisite for an appointment like this – you’re interested in what the guy can do in the future, not what he has done in the past, and Cheika for example had next to no experience when he took the Leinster gig a couple of years ago – I must say I was surprised, and a little disappointed by such a low-profile appointment. When it became clear that he was coming on his own, with apparently no input into the rest of his coaching team, the thought occurred to me ‘when is a ‘Head Coach’ not a ‘Head’ Coach?’
At around the same time I read on munsterfans.com some tittle-tattle to the effect that a former Munster player had said, after the announcement of Rob Penney as Munster’s new coach, that he had interviewed for the Ulster role, but had been passed over on the basis that he was too strong a character, or words to that effect. Of course if all that I have read on munsterfans.com in the last year had turned out to be true, Nonu and Smith would be lining out in the centre for them this season, and Bowe on the wing, so I take that with a due pinch of salt!
There is a school of thought (conspiracy theory?) among some Ulster fans that Humphreys is on a mission to consolidate the levers of power at Ulster in his hands, and those of a set of chums from his playing days at London Irish and Ulster – for example Clarke (who has just landed an Ulster Academy gig), Malone, McCall. The appointment of a ‘technical’ head coach, who will stick to the training paddock while the DoR calls the shots, would fit this narrative.
What to make of it all?
The Proof in the Eating
It is quite clear that, for one reason or another, Humphreys role and influence at the club has ramped up sharply over the last 3 years or so. Formerly ‘Operations Director’, his title has morphed over time into ‘Director of Rugby’ (was that ever press-released???) and his brief has expanded dramatically to cover substantially every aspect of the club. He seems to have been a strong proponent of the replacement of McLaughlin, and the appointment of Anscombe. And there is at least the appearance of a certain cosiness among the management echelons of the club, with a lot of Humphreys’ former team-mates in positions of influence (Bell, Doak, Longwell, Clarke), as well as former team-mate and business partner Ryan Constable, who runs the player agency Cornerflag (co-founded with Humphreys), one of the club’s most important business counter-parties (as well as moonlighting for the BBC, publicly commentating upon many of the very players he represents – maybe that’s a matter for another time, however…)
All that said, while it’s too early to call the Humphreys revolution an unqualified success, things certainly appear to be moving in the right direction – which is surely the most important thing for most fans. The cup run last year was quite a feat, and should boost the confidence and aspirations of the squad heading into a new season. As mentioned, recruitment has been generally excellent, arguably the best of any Irish side in the last 2-3 years by a distance. Off the pitch, impressive stadium redevelopment plans appear to be well-advanced.
I’m not sure there is a clear ‘right way’ to run a sports club; each one will present different challenges, and every group of coaches will have a slightly different dynamic, regardless of job titles. The important thing is finding something that works, rather than something which can be neatly mapped on an organogram. It’s certainly plausible to me that having a strong Director of Rugby to think strategic thoughts – for example about coaching tickets, recruitment and squad development – leaving the coaches to concentrate on coaching, is potentially a good division of labour, and that seems to be the model that Ulster have adopted.
As I see it, the main risks of the current set-up are twofold. Firstly, the habitual accusation of nepotism or cronyism, or the perception of it. Irish rugby is a small world, and notably prone to strong whiffs of these particular ills, and amongst certain Ulster supporters the suggestion that Humphreys is trying to pack the management and coaching ranks with his mates and Anscombe just keeping a seat warm for someone else, like a returning Mark McCall in 2 years, have been doing the rounds (although on the latter point, it’s not clear to me that McCall would be keen to follow up a pretty successful stint as Sarries DoR with a job wherein he plays second fiddle to Humphreys as DoR at Ulster).
If this was the case, it clearly would not a good thing – guys should be there because they’re the best equipped for the job, not because they used to play with the DoR. To be clear I’m not saying I believe that this actually is the case at Ulster – as I’ve said given that Irish rugby is a small world, its no surprise that the guys in coaching/management circles know each other, or used to play together. Certainly one doesn’t want to fall into the habit of assuming that some coaches aren’t as good as others simply because they have Ulster, rather than Southern Hemisphere, accents – Bell did a stand-out job on our defence last year, and Doak seems to be well thought-of. At the end of the day, Humphreys is no mug, and doling out jobs to ill-equipped mates is unlikely to be a successful strategy, so I query whether a desire to find ‘jobs for the boys’ trumps a desire for success – which is the way it should be.
Secondly, a lack of accountability and transparency – certainly for an outsider. Try to find David Humphreys’ profile on the Ulster website, or if you can’t be bothered, I’ll save you the trouble – it isn’t there, either under team management with the coaches, or office staff. To find his job description, I had to trawl back through the news archives to find the press release from 2009. Now this is mainly a matter for his employer, not the likes of us fans, but I don’t think it’s a good thing that arguably the most important character in the management of Ulster has nothing spelling out his responsibilities in black and white on the face of the club’s primary medium of communication with the outside world.
The House That Humph Built
These are general points; I personally have no problem with Humphreys – in fact he was one of my favourite players, and I’m convinced that if he’d been born 10 years later and come up through properly professional ranks, he would have been an Irish all-time great, so naturally gifted was he. During his time as ‘Operations Director’, then ‘Director of Rugby’, things have been more good than bad at Ulster, and there seems to be a sense of positivity and ambition about the place that has been lacking for some time, which is great. He comes across as an intelligent and diligent man, who appears to have an impressively ambitious vision of where he wants Ulster to be heading. He appears to have the respect of the IRFU and the Irish press.
But we are now in the house that Humph built. If things go wrong we should remember that as Director of Rugby, the buck for almost everything at Ulster stops with him. The current coaching ticket has been largely assembled by him, with a view to making forward progress from last season. A key area that Ulster needs to get right over the coming season is a scaling up, and skilling-up, of the academy and underage structures – Humphreys is ultimately responsible for this, and it will be interesting to see how that situation evolves, given the exceptionally opaque and confusing nature of the current management set-up (seen from the outside at least).
While I’m not entirely convinced by some of the ‘power-grab’ theories that some seem to hold, I think it’s certainly reasonable and fair to expect future management and coaching appointments to stand up to scrutiny. Recruits should have the credentials and experience to bring something to the club, and not just a couple of years as Humph’s team-mate in the past!
While the buck should stop with him if things go wrong, by the same token if things go well over the next season or two, he will be due a lot of credit. If performances and results improve notably this season, it will be due in large part to the players that Humphreys has brought to the club, and will surely go a long way to vindicating the change of head coach. Ultimately, what we all want, and Humphreys more than most, is success for Ulster. The current trajectory is upwards, so more power to his elbow, and long may it continue!