Rugby Union

Rugby: Ulster Review of 2018

Jacob Stockdale scores the second Ulster try during the European Cup Pool 1 Round 5 clash between Ulster Rugby and La Rochelle at Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill Park, Belfast on Saturday January 13 2018. Picture by John Dickson / DICKSONDIGITAL.
John Flack

THERE were so many trials and tribulations for Ulster Rugby in a turbulent 2018 that events on the pitch often seemed secondary to what happened off it.

Two head coaches parted company with the province in sharply contrasting circumstances as Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes left the club and Chief Executive Shane Logan's eight-year tenure also came to an end.

Two of Ulster's Ireland internationals, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding had their contracts revoked after being acquitted of rape charges following a high-profile trial at the start of the year.

On the pitch, Ulster were unable to reach the knock-out stages of the European Champions Cup last season and only retained their place in the competition by winning a play-off following their failure to make the PRO14 shake up.

However, stability has been restored under new head coach Dan McFarland although his arrival in the province to take over from Gibbes, who jumped ship with a year of his contract still to run, was far from straightforward.

Despite a raft of high-profile retirements, including experienced internationals Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne Robbie Diack, Chris Henry and Paul Marshall, Ulster have punched above their weight in the current season.

The year began with a 24-17 PRO14 home win over a 14-man Munster after Ulster had trailed 17-0 at half-time.

A humiliating 38-7 loss to Leinster at the RDS Arena followed, piling more pressure on under-fire director of rugby Kiss.

Ulster had reserved some of their best performances for the Champions Cup with back-to-back wins over Harlequins going into the new year.

However, a 20-13 home win over La Rochelle with tries from Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Nick Timoney, provided only temporary respite.

A 26-7 defeat to a Danny Cipriani-inspired Wasps ended hopes of progression to the knock-out stages for the first time since 2014.

The game in Coventry was to be Kiss's last in charge as he left the club by 'mutual consent' with more than a year of his contract still to run and Gibbes took over as head coach.

After a 59-10 home win over a hapless Southern Kings side, Ulster suffered back-to-back losses to Edinburgh and Scarlets in February and dropped out of the PRO14 play-off places for the first time in the season.

In March, Gibbes, who had earlier dismissed rumours that he was to leave the post as 'fake news' announced that he was to return home to New Zealand.

"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 who was to take over at Waikato.

Director of Operations Bryn Cunningham admitted at the time that Ulster were 'near rock bottom' and several prominent former players call for CEO Shane Logan to stand down - a wish that was eventually granted.

On the pitch, March's only game due to the international break, resulted in a 37-17 away defeat to Cardiff Blues and, with four games left in the regulation PRO 14 campaign, play-off hopes were receding.

Ulster captain Rory Best revealed that 'a line was drawn in the sand' after that insipid performance in the Welsh capital and a 32-20 win over Edinburgh signalled the start of a revival in fortunes.

An 8-0 home win over the Ospreys, secured by a late Stockdale try, was followed by a 36-15 win over Glasgow in Belfast.

That left Ulster needing to beat Munster with a bonus-point in Thomond Park to have any chance of progressing to the knock-out stages but the game ended in a 24-24 draw.

The Gibbes situation took on yet another twist as he prepared his team to face the Ospreys in a play-off on May 20 to determine the last place in the 2018/19 Champions Cup.

On a rest day in the week of Ulster's final game of the season, it emerged that the 41-year-old had visited France to hold talks with La Rochelle.

While Ulster won the game comfortably (35-17) and many players said afterwards that their coach's whereabouts had not been a distraction, it remained a bizarre incident.

He still pitched up for his first day as Waikato boss, but it soon emerged his stay at home was to be a short one as he moved to La Rochelle in November to take over as the Top14 club's director of rugby.

In the interim, after a protracted wrangle between Ulster and his previous employers, the Scottish RFU, Dan McFarland arrived in Belfast in August to take over the reins after an early release from his previous contact was finally agreed.

The English man, who previously spent nine years at Connacht as a player and coach, didn't hesitate to introduce younger talent into a much-changed squad.

However, going into 2019, Ulster are well placed to progress at both European and domestic level with new arrivals Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore, newly-capped Irish international, Will Addison, and Billy Burns all having made significant contributions.

McFarland insisted from day one that a never-say attitude was non-negotiable and Ulster lived up to it as they began the PRO14 campaign with last minute wins over Scarlets and Edinburgh before a comfortable victory over Southern Kings and a draw with the Cheetahs in South Africa.

After a four-game unbeaten start, a record 64-7 loss to Munster and a first home defeat to Connacht for 58 years followed but an impressive 24-20 win over Leicester in Europe in October revived spirits.

Ulster started well against Racing 92 in Paris, scoring two early tries but ended up losing 44-12 before PRO 14 games at home to Dragons and away to Treviso yielded wins.

A 29-12 league defeat to Scarlets in Llanelli didn't inspire confidence before the European double header in December.

But, after a 16-12 PRO14 win over Cardiff, Ulster defied the odds to beat the Scarlets 25-24 with a stunning display before chalking up a 30-15 victory in the return fixture in Belfast.

That earlier humiliation at Thomond Park was avenged with a 19-12 win over Munster as McFarland's men made it seven from their last eight in all competitions.

The year finished on a disappointing note with a 21-12 defeat to Connacht in Galway but at least the feel good factor has returned to the province after a torrid start to 2018.

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