Back with his thoughts on Ulster Rugby is @Kristian7Ross
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So here we are. The fixtures have been released. The kits are finally available to buy. Ulster Rugby fans are finally able to start looking towards the first day of the season after an incredibly turbulent few months at the province.
The end of last season spelled the conclusion that Ulster were about to go through a major transitional period in the near future. Many stalwarts of the club were moving onto pastures new or simply hanging up the boots for good, Tom Court to London Irish, Paddy McAllister to Aurillac, John Afoa to Gloucester and the loss of three of the most well known faces in Belfast to retirement. Johann Muller was to return to South Africa, Paddy Wallace to start a new future setting up his rugby academies for children and of course Stephen Ferris, who after a torrid two years, finally had to decide that enough was enough, ending his rugby career at the age of just twenty eight.
Of course, Ulster had prepared themselves and had already started to seek replacements across the board, the capture of three South Africans in the form of Wiehahn Herbst, Franco van der Merwe and Louis Ludik seem promising along with Ruaidhri Murphy, a Dublin native from the Super Rugby side The Brumbies.
Then came the first of two surprises. The name change. Professional sport in the last fifteen years has seen the rise of sponsorship deals for stadium names, but its always something that I personally thought Ulster would shy away from. After the transformation of Ravenhill, it was announced in June that one of Ulster's primary sponsors, Kingspan Group based in County Cavan would have the naming rights in a ten year deal. No concrete number as ever given as to how much the deal was worth, but Ulster chief Shane Logan said the figure was "substantial". It was a move that angered many Ulster fans. The tradition and heritage of a stadium that had stood since 1923 totally wiped out in a single afternoon. Others however argued that the money would be invested back into the club and would contribute massively to new players and facilities.
The dust had settled on one controversy when the next one arrived within a few days.... and it was a big one. David Humphrey's, the household name as Ulster's director of rugby, a man who had been with the club since day one, a man who essentially was part of the furniture at Ravenhill, was to leave Ulster and take up a new position at Gloucester Rugby in the Aviva Premiership. The fans were stunned. I was stunned. It couldn't surely be true that the man who had led the team to European glory in 1999 and had played a huge part in the restructuring of the team and the new stadium was to move on when the job was almost quite finished? It left the fan base reeling and ironically I sat there and thought to myself that it would be just our luck if our head coach was away next!
The end of the month came and the fans were coming to terms with huge change, our director of rugby gone and a new stadium name, but things weren't quite finished yet. There was one last plot twist in the tale and it came on June 30th. Belfast Newsletter journalist Richard Mulligan sent out a tweet that merely stated that Ulster would make an announcement within thirty minutes regarding the future of Mark Anscombe. Social media went wild. The rumours escalated and it looked pretty evident that the man from New Zealand wouldn't be sticking around and with that said, Mulligan followed up with the decisive tweet announcing that Mark Anscombe would leave Ulster with immediate effect.
It was all over, a two year stint that lived long in the memory with some truly remarkable results in that time. As a person, Mark Anscombe always seemed to want was best for Ulster Rugby, but I suppose you never know what goes on behind closed doors and rumours of disharmony weren't far from the lips of many. In credit to Anscombe, he brought on young players leaps and bounds, but his failure to capture silverware was ultimately his downfall. A real pitfall was last seasons Heineken Cup campaign, Ulster topping the pool with a mesmerising six wins from six as well as toppling Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. But failure to reach the semi finals after a defeat against Saracens in which Jared Payne was shown red saw Ulster fail to make the semi finals for the second season in a row. Brian McLaughlin left Ulster Rugby having taken them to a European Cup final. The real question to ask is this. Did Anscombe do a better job than McLaughlin? I'll leave you that one to mull over.
Now that the PRO12 has its new sponsor in Guinness and the inaugural Rugby Champions Cup fixtures have been announced, Ulster must now prepare for the season ahead. Les Kiss stands in as interim coach, a man that has great knowledge of the game and should see the team right until a permanent replacement is found. No doubt this will be a tough year for Ulster and the teams they have to play in this seasons European competition poised possibly the greatest ever challenge on the continent. Old foe Leicester Tigers are included as well as RC Toulon who have of course won the last two Heineken Cup competitions respectively. The PRO12 will as ever boast its recognisable brand of rugby and Ulster will do well again to make the top four with the teams below them becoming more and more competitive every season.
In all, it's been a summer in which Ulster Rugby have had to deal with many setbacks but as always the fan support has never wavered and we are all as hopeful as ever. The start of a new chapter is upon us and it could potentially swing either way. New faces have arrived, old faces have departed, but those posts still remain and the white jerseys are still as imposing as ever to any opposition who steps foot on the hallowed turf at BT6. The season countdown has started and no doubt everyone is looking forward to standing for another year.
I'm Kristian. 20. And my mind is filled with rugby shaped thoughts. Supporting Ulster Rugby, Newcastle Falcons and of course the mighty Ireland. Tommy Bowe is the MAN !!!! SUFTUM.