Ulster Rugby: Where now?

The mid-year review. Gulp. A period that personally fills me with dread, a time when the manager sits the protege down and talks all things job performance and the direction to be taken going forward. Unfortunately for Les Kiss, his employers felt that a change in direction was required and with that Les Kiss was clearing his desk as head coach of Ulster Rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the news.


Why to axe Les Kiss now?

The Les Kiss tenure at Ulster Rugby has being a mixed bag truth be told. The word inconsistency comes to mind when you think about Ulster Rugby’s performances on the pitch in the last two years. A baffling observation considering the talent in the squad such as Best, Henderson, Piutau, Trimble.

One season of mediocrity and inconsistency can be excused due to a new head coach arriving to the club, putting his imprint and style on the side which obviously takes time for the players to implement. However, this has continued into this season. An encouraging Pro 14 start has evaporated with indifferent form observed in recent months.

The European Cup campaign is over too early again for the province and the performances in the last two rounds of the competition speaks volumes of the issues at play. A stirring performance against La Rochelle in round five setup a winner take all fixture against Wasps on the road but the side failed to perform in a flat performance. The Ulster pack who were so dominant against La Rochelle were pushed back at a rate of knots against Wasps.

Ulster Rugby fans have being increasingly frustrated by the style of play and performance levels particularly this season. Was their a fear from the top brass at Ulster Rugby that season ticket renewals were in decline? The powers that be at Kingspan Stadium felt that they needed to act and unfortunately, Les Kiss’ excellent coaching credentials were not enough to save his head coaching position.

When you add the fact that Jono Gibbes joined the backroom staff this season, personally felt that it was going to put pressure on Les Kiss indirectly given the credentials Gibbes has as a coach in the game. Gibbes no doubt was looking to make the jump to head coach and the decision to dispense with Kiss was offset by the fact that Ulster Rugby had already a standout candidate in their ranks.

Why did it all go wrong?

It is a difficult question to answer. The credentials of Les Kiss were impressive, his coaching resume including a superb Ireland Rugby period working alongside Joe Schmidt was praised by both media and players who worked under the Australian.

The appointment looked a shrewd move from Ulster Rugby, an excellent coach arriving at a club who needed impetus to get to the next level after a couple of Pro 12 and European Cup near misses. The move looked right on paper but for whatever reason, it has not worked.

Pienaar’s departure this season has being a blow despite the performances of John Cooney this season who has stepped up to the plate. Pienaar is a world class scrum half operator and his presence will always be missed in the training paddock or at game time.

The on-going judicial issues with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Holding have being a distraction at the club. To say it has not is quite frankly absurd. The trial has commenced in recent days and yet more media attention on the rugby club for the wrong reasons indirectly. The players absence off the pitch this season have being hugely felt particularly with Paddy Jackson at ten.

For such an exciting back field, Ulster Rugby have struggled for consistency in the pack. It is a strange statement considering the presence of the likes of Best, Henderson in the front five. However, the prop situation has being problematic with indifferent results at scrum time this season. The platform has not being effectively built particularly on the road; the side have suffered and losses have followed.

Marty Moore’s arrival from Wasps next season will be an interesting side note along with Jordi Murphy who will look to bolster a back row who have at times being dominated at the breakdown area (particularly on the road). Murphy’s leadership and experience will be invaluable to the likes of Timoney and Ross. Two astute signings on paper from Les Kiss but he will not be present to see the rewards of this acquisition.

Where now?

Gibbes fills the head coaching void and it will be interesting to see if the style of play changes fundamentally under his guidance. Gibbes’s coaching experience includes Leinster Rugby and ASM Clermont will look for the pack to improve their consistency in setting up the platform. The RBS 6N phase of the Pro 14 league will provide a good indicator of the style of play Gibbes will look to run.

All is not lost for Ulster Rugby this season. They are involved in the playoff mix currently in Conference B. Yes, results have waned in recent months but they are still in a playoff berth despite Edinburgh lurking with intent. The players need to front up now. Their head coach has lost his job and the focus will be on them now. For a quite a few players in the ranks, it is make or break time.

Ulster Rugby have reflected and made their decision to dispense with Les Kiss. Gibbes will be asked to improve the team’s fortunes but he will need to be absolutely ruthless in dispensing squad players who are not up to the mark. The academy players need to be given their chance to impress too; the talent is there but there needs to be a mentality change in the club to be resolute and driven to succeed.

Gibbes is an excellent replacement for Ulster Rugby but he cannot do this on his own. Everyone connected to the club needs to row in behind him and provide support. There may be some initial setbacks but Gibbes will be keen to impress; expect shrewd signings in the coming weeks and summer to address the weak points. Exciting times for Ulster Rugby!

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