I’m jesting, but can it get any worse for Ulster Rugby? Apart from a court case, Ulster’s European glory is gone, again, and the likelihood of PRO14 glory is minimal. With head coach, Jono Gibbes, unsurprisingly throwing in the towel at the Ravenhill, yesterday, with a year of his contract yet to run, it probably will before it gets better.
Gibbes is heading back to New Zealand at the end of the season, for ‘family reasons’. This takes me back to the day when the new chief executive, Shane Logan, took over the reins at Ulster Rugby, nearly eight years ago to the day. He uttered the famous words: “Whatever plan we put together has to deliver Ulster being top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and, indeed, the world!”
Hmmm, seems somewhat off the mark, particularly as he, along with then director of rugby, David Humphreys, was part and parcel of the strange removal of McLaughlin as head coach. That abomination hit the newsstands just before McLaughlin had steered a very tasty Ulster side to the European Cup final in 2012. It’s been all downhill since.
Mark Anscombe, a former New Zealand U20 coach, has come, and was also unceremoniously ushered out. Then, we had Les Kiss, who ‘took over’ while still part of Joe Schmidt’s excellent backroom staff. When Kiss did finally arrive for his full-time chores, things had already started to slide downhill. After some disastrous results this season, Kiss had no option but to fall on his sword.
It meant the head coach, Gibbes, was pushed up the ladder, as the man in charge. A month or so later, he’s now gone with the wind.
“Being a long way from home, for the last 10 years, has made me prioritise things above my career, and so I’ll be returning at the end of this season, for family reasons,” said Gibbes.
“The decision to leave here is a difficult one, professionally, because I support the team and the staff, and I am excited for what the future holds for them. I believe there are enough passionate and professional people involved to build on the existing, strong foundations of the club.
“The challenge ahead for Ulster demands the full attention of everyone involved: the management group, the team, the coaches, and support staff. It is exciting and achievable. However, I cannot, in good conscience, provide my full attention for the journey ahead. My family and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Ulster, to date, and we’re very grateful for the welcome and good spirit afforded to us.”
One can understand Gibbes’s dilemma, as at stake was a tremendous reputation as a forwards coach. He had helped a wonderfully-gifted Leinster side to three European titles in his six-year stint in Dublin. The former All Black then moved to Clermont Auvergne, in 2014, and helped the French giants to a long-awaited Top 14 title and guided them to three European Cup finals. So, his reputation was a burgeoning one, particularly when one is working with a squad of players of such rare talent.
Unfortunately, Gibbes had inherited an Ulster squad that has neither the passion of old, nor the same quality. Does one blame him for leaving, or should he have stuck it out and helped build a side that can be competitive again? That’s what McLaughlin did, although the former Ireland skills coach, under Eddie O’Sullivan, hadn’t Gibbes’s high-power reputation to lose.
What’s next? Undoubtedly, one can see Shane Logan standing down as CEO, saying that he has done his work, and that it’s time to move on, particularly the way he has transformed the bricks and mortar of the Kingspan Stadium, and the on-site, five-star training facilities, which many a professional rugby club would die for. He can proudly boast of that.
As far as the team is concerned, it will be a step-up for the likeable backs coach, Dwayne Peel, in the merry-go-round that is Ulster Rugby. In many ways, Ulster are now ‘uncoachable’, as one former player of recent vintage told me, and it will be hard to see who they can bring in to steady the ship.