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Gerry Thornley: Ulster’s financial position means there are no quick fixes for province’s woes

With the squad in transition and given an unenviable financial position, province must base its future on young home-grown players

Ulster have underperformed so badly both on and off the pitch in the past year that they’ve lost both their head coach and chief executive in the last month, and so along with an interim head coach, the province is about to appoint an interim CEO.

It’s as if the province returned to 2018 after the so-called ‘basket case’ season. It’s not that bad, but whereas then there were some quick fixes, there do not appear to be any this time around.

Off the pitch, Ulster lost an estimated €900,000 last season when hit hard by their Champions Cup tie against La Rochelle being shifted to Dublin at short notice and an unscheduled second URC trip to South Africa.

This has been compounded by commercial targets not being reached this season and, whether unrelated or not, the IRFU’s 68-word statement confirming the departure of CEO Jonny Petrie by “mutual consent” this week.


On the pitch, having arguably overachieved under Dan McFarland for four years or so, they underachieved in the last year to 18 months.

Wildly inconsistent this season, Ulster failed to reach the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup and currently sit seventh, a point above the cut-off for the URC playoffs in advance of facing the Stormers this Saturday in interim head coach Richie Murphy’s second game in charge.

It is also understood that Billy Burns (who is joining Munster), Will Addison, Luke Marshall, Dave Ewers, Eric O’Sullivan and Greg Jones are being released at the end of this season, while Angus Curtis has retired, and skills coach Craig Newby is expected to depart.

Their squad will be trimmed, with Nathan Doak set to cover outhalf along with Jake Flannery, but the drain could have been worse. Leinster wanted to sign Tom O’Toole, but that was seemingly blocked by the IRFU (Leinster also targeted Finlay Bealham).

Iain Henderson was pursued by Lyon, and Stuart McCloskey by Bayonne and Montpellier, among others. Any French club would have to buy out some of their contracts as each player has another year remaining, but this is not such an issue for the Top 14 clubs as “transfer fees” do not affect their salary caps.

Bayonne have since signed Manu Tuilagi, while Jan Serfontein has agreed a new deal at Montpellier, suggesting McCloskey will be staying at Ulster for another year anyway.

Ulster have previously signed Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa and Marcel Coetzee, but while Steven Kitshoff is a World Cup winner, you’d have to wonder about the wisdom of making a loosehead their marquee signing.

In the midst of all this, Ulster have also signed the South African winger Werner Kok. Although a fine player, it’s a curious acquisition given the presence of Robert Baloucoune, Jacob Stockdale, Ethan McIlroy, Aaron Sexton and Michael Lowry. Admittedly, as with James Hume, the career trajectory of all these indigenous players has stalled.

On the plus side, Bryn Cunningham is expected to be given a more hands-on role overseeing all aspects of Ulster’s professional game, while the incoming arrival of David Humphreys as the IRFU’s high-performance director looks well timed.

Ulster last won a trophy with Humphreys at outhalf in 2006 and in addition to the obstacle of Leinster, the Top 14 clubs are awash with money, the Premiership has been reduced from 13 to 10 clubs and their salary cap will revert upwards next season. The South African franchises are only going to get bigger while making the URC and Champions Cup increasingly more competitive.

Given their financial position, there are no quick fixes for Ulster – rather any gains henceforth will be incremental and largely based on young home-grown players.