I never like to hear ex players being critical of the current coaching management regime in a club, there’s usually an agenda at work. In this instance Stephen Ferris has been vocal and forthright in pointing the finger at people or persons in the Ulster management who he feels are not up to the job. Mark Robson’s SKY commentary referred to Ferris on Saturday, during the La Rochelle v Ulster Rugby game as a legend, a description that is fitting for someone who was fearless playing at blindside flanker. A committed player, Stephen Ferris did not hold back while playing, almost to the point of recklessness, he put his body on the line for Ulster, Ireland and the British Lions. He ultimately paid the price of that physicality with a career ending injury and can now be found plying his trade as a TV pundit on the BBC and SKY sport with the same forthright commitment as when he played flanker.
There can be no doubting Stephen Ferris’s passion for Ulster Rugby, it comes across in his punditry. On Saturday afternoon on SKY Sport following Ulster’s win against La Rochelle Ferris firmly nailed his colours to the mast, referring to Shane Logan’s now infamous/famous, 2010 ‘world domination’ speech in which Logan declared Ulster for world domination of World rugby. Ferris said Logan should be held accountable for the following 8 years in which Ulster have underachieved.
I was amongst many supporters who attended Ulster rugby’s introduction of Shane Logan to the supporters and admired his ambitious statement of intent. I have always thought of Logan’s declaration as an aspiration and a worthy one at that, aim high. I doubt many supporters out there took Logan literally. There was a mixture of derision and amusement when his world domination statement landed on to the messageboards, I recall some questioning his cv but there is no doubt he is an administrator of considerable experience. Every pro rugby club needs an able administrator as well as a coach and playing management team.
Logan’s experience in dealing with government mandarins was invaluable in my opinion in pushing through the stadium redevelopment up on the hill and in getting it through the hoops and hurdles in general. You only have to look on the problems Casement Park redevelopment to see where it all could go pear shaped. Casement still awaits redevelopment.
Ferris has repeatedly referred to the negativity expressed by supporters, the fans are unhappy with on pitch performances especially this season and the lack of winning silverware over the previous seasons despite considerable investment in big name players.
Negativity and Ulster supporters seem to go hand in hand, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for many Ulster fans there is no middle ground, it is either the heady heights of victory over La Rochelle bringing unbridled joy or crushing defeat by Leinster the week before bringing doom and deep introspection.
Inevitably eyes turn towards Leinster as a source of what could be for Ulster Rugby, Leinster have won rugby’s European Cup 3 times and they currently fly high in the European cup. They ruled the roost in the inter provincial games over the Christmas period, including a thrashing of Ulster in Dublin having already beat them at Ravenhill earlier in the season. There are many things that make Leinster currently successful, not the least a squad that is the envy of the other Irish Provinces and a seeming conveyor belt of young talent and a pool of back row players that enables them to field almost two separate international back rows. There is no doubt Leinster are Europe’s top team at the moment and are favourites to win the European Cup. Ulster fans wonder how Ulster Rugby don’t seem to have the same playing resources, particularly in the back row.
When Ulster eyes look enviously southwards towards Leinster in particular, it’s all too easy to forget the travails they have endured. Remember the Declan Kidney fiasco anyone? Whilst Leinster didn’t have a press conference aka the McLoughlin/Humphreys embarrassment, the Kidney fiasco was only saved further ridicule by not having a press job. Leinster have handled the player secession of fading superstars, aka O’Driscoll/D’Arcey successfully and you will generally not find these legends having a pop at thier old alma mater. It is easy to forget that Leinster have had a few lean years before this season’s renaissance.
At Ulster, as the FRU noted earlier in the season, all is not well in the state of Denmark. Who is on the throne though and who is pulling the strings? For my money it is not Shane Logan, he is not the problem. I say this as one of the so called little people, I do not have any connections to anyone on the team the coaching staff, players or back room staff at Ulster rugby, I merely see what I see, listen to the tom toms rattling in the background and form my own opinion free of a personal agenda.
There is a new coaching regime at UR in effect even though Les Kiss is in his second season. At the start of the season a new ‘on pitch’ approach was heralded along the lines of being more clinical in the red zone. This has not always translated into on pitch performances but as with any change of direction in playing culture, there will be teething problems. It has been hinted in interviews that training was not as good as it could be with the inference being, if you drop the ball in training, you’ll do it on the pitch during a match. This is in effect what has happened, yet come Saturday last, minds were focussed and a performance resulted. Saturday’s performance changed nothing as far as Ferris was concerned and of course it remains to be seen if it is a one off, an aberration in an otherwards downward spiral. I think he is being a little harsh, if Shane Logan and his accountability for an aspirational mission statement was the problem at Ulster rugby then it would be, ‘off with his head’ and next please.
Some Ulster fans have, an unrealistic vision of their team and its place in the rugby world hierarchy, we are not a Saracens, Toulon or a Leinster, we are Ulster but we do have a recognisable brand, a loyal support and a genuine and historical team identity. We need to buy into it and recognise we are not world beaters but we do have a prominent role to play in European Rugby.
This Sunday will tell a tale at Wasps, if we have produced the right intensity in training, if the coaching staff are not being undermined or undermining each other, if the players have a unity of purpose and are not undermining each other and if the big names are putting their reputations on the line. I do not expect a bp win for Ulster, that is totally unrealistic but one is hopeful they can take last Saturday’s performance to another level and secure at least a quarter final spot.
As for the legend that is Stephen Ferris, keep on stomping your patch in Belfast City Centre, listening to the fans but try to take a step back and look at the big picture, remove yourself from the personal agenda if you have one and take the broader view at least for the purposes of your media work.