Ulster secures Champions Cup place despite challenges on and off pitch

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Ulster secures Champions Cup place despite challenges on and off pitch
20th May 2018, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, Northern Ireland; Guinness Pro14 rugby, Champions Cup playoff, Ulster versus Ospreys; Jacob Stockdale of Ulster dives over the line for a try (Photo by Peter Fitzpatrick/Action Plus via Getty Images)

When Ulster defeated Ospreys 35-17 last weekend, it left them in the same spot in the Guinness Pro14 standings as last year. Still a positive, as Ulster secures Champions Cup status – although that was despite challenges on and off the pitch.

But the team that ran out on Kingspan Stadium last Sunday ‘barely resembled’ the one that started the season.

It was fellow Irish province Leinster who took the Pro14 title last weekend, defeating holders Scarlets in Dublin. However Ulster have been in the headlines regularly throughout the season; Champions Cup qualification is a rare piece of good news in a troubling season.

Players/Coaches lost during underwhelming season

Fly-half Paddy Jackson and back Stuart Olding had their contracts revoked in April after rape allegations. The alleged incident involving Jackson and Olding occurred in summer of 2016, but the trial didn’t begin until late January of this year. Importantly, the two players were acquitted in March – but it has affected the club, and the players’ future prospects.

As if that weren’t enough, Robbie Diack, Callum Black and Charles Piutau will all leave Ulster after this season. Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Paul Marshall also retired (and not surprisingly, were left out the squad for last Sunday’s match). Even Norman Pollock, the face behind Ulster’s mascot Sparky, retired after this season.

In losing Piutau, the club showed they did not have the ‘pull’ to retain big name signings. The former Player of the Year, Piutau could not likely be replaced – even though, Irish Rugby would prefer to foster homegrown talent.

All those changes have inhibited the performance. Not entirely negatively, but the player movements is for fans and stakeholders, constant change that is not beneficial to their hopes and ambitions.

Critically, head coach Jono Gibbes [who took over after director of rugby Les Kiss left in February 2017] announced his end-of-season departure for “family reasons,”

Last Word on Rugby at the time reported the shift. Then Gibbes commented in media reports “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,” Gibbes told BBC Sport back in March. “However, I cannot in good conscience provide my full attention for the journey ahead.”

Ulster trumps Ospreys for Champions Cup place

If the challenge Gibbes mentioned was ‘remaining in elite European rugby competition’ then Ulster must be proud that they have managed to face that challenge head-on.

Ulster’s fourth-place finish in Pro14’s Conference B left them fighting for a spot in next year’s Champions Cup. Gladly, new competition rules allowed for a first-ever play-off match. Yet, despite several injuries and an early Ospreys lead, Ulster secured Champions Cup status to bounce back, and remain in Europe’s top tier for next season.

But unsurprisingly, they did it the hard way.

“Injuries ruled out Ulster captain and hooker Rory Best and lock Iain Henderson beforehand, with Rob Herring taking over at hooker and captain for Best,” BBC Sport reported. A severe blow, but all through 2017/18 the squad has had to make adjustments and changes.

Gladly for fans, Ulster still contributed on the park. On the other side of the pitch, the Ospreys also their troubles with player fitness; bringing in replacements, in an similar example of the professional rugby adaption needed to simply ‘make the play-off match’ after a long, hard season.

“I think we didn’t really make the changes that we needed,” Ospreys’ Alun Wyn Jones told BBC Sport after the match. “We probably let them in, if you know what I’m saying.” Jones’ comments were right, in regards to the player management required in the Celtic League.

Rory Best addresses fans and future of Ulster Rugby

Following the play-off win, Rory Best wrote an open letter to fans, on behalf of the group. It read:

“After a challenging season both on and off the pitch, I thought it was appropriate for me, on behalf of the playing group, to share our thanks for your loyal support once again,” Best began.

“As players, we visit clubs, schools and other organisations across the Province on a weekly basis and it is truly humbling to see how much support we have within the community. I watched yesterday’s game from the stands – the atmosphere was brilliant – and the support was really appreciated by all players, especially those who were saying goodbye.”

The players sentiment is a valuable key to how Ulster Rugby can survive this tough season. Full of ups and downs, it finished with some positive outcomes, but it also shows how (from a players viewpoint) the input of fans can always make a difference.

Best’s full letter can be read here.
Charles Piutau, left, Rory Best, centre, and Paddy Jackson of Ulster during at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Ulster secures Champions Cup place despite challenges on and off pitch

With so many departures this season, Ulster has a lot of work ahead of them if they want to remain in Champions Cup rugby beyond 2019. Luckily, there seems to be some upside to Ulster’s story.

Scotland assistant Dan McFarland was recently signed as the new head coach on a three-year contract. Ulster is also trying to find a replacement for Jackson. The team tried to sign international talent; in the form of Sprinboks outhalf Elton Jantijies, but the IRFU has blocked that move thus far, -due to Jantijies not being an Irish-qualified player.

Talks of Leinster’s Joey Carbery coming to Ulster are also rumoured. So it seems the ongoing player and coaching changes may continue. But when you are replacing valued members of the group, the key to future success is in the appointments, and the culture that players arrive into.

As Ulster secures Champions Cup status, possibly there is a rainbow beyond the recent clouds. Add to that to positive feeling in Irish Rugby (in general), and it might be looking brighter for the Northern Irish province.

“Main photo credit”
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