The 'Man City of the Magners' eager to cash in

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The Independent Online

Ulster have been labelled the Manchester City of the Magners League but David Humphreys insists that money will not buy the big-spending outfit success.

The Irish province stunned their Celtic rivals by splashing out on three high-profile South Africans, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg, this summer but Humphreys, Ulster's operations director, reckons it will take more than hard cash for them to start winning trophies.

Football fan Humphreys said: "It's the first time I've heard Ulster described like that. I am a football fan and support Liverpool, which is unfortunate [after the 3-0 defeat at Eastlands], so to label the province as Manchester City is a low blow for me. We believe we've recruited very well this year and I believe this is the best Ulster squad that's been assembled.

"We have made big changes on and off the field. We are going to have a new stadium, we're redeveloping our training facility and the chief executive is taking us in a much different commercial direction.

"We've made the signings and there is a huge sense of optimism around Ulster rugby. We're all enthused and excited. The players we have brought in are proven international quality but as much as we want short-term results, we also recognise it may take longer to get everyone to gel. History has proved across every sport that you can't buy success."

Humphreys added: "We have recruited for two reasons. One, to get a better team on the pitch. We identified players and specific areas who would add to the squad. We brought in Muller for his leadership and work at the line-out; Wannenburg because we understand under the Irish management programme that Stephen Ferris will be unavailable; and we felt we needed to improve at scrum-half so that's why we chose Ruan. I believe scrum-half is becoming the most important position on the pitch in the modern game.

"And the second reason was to bring in top players who have played at the very highest level who can also develop a culture here. We've a lot of players who have no experience of sport or life outside Northern Ireland. For example, Andy Goode says Muller is the closest thing he's seen to Martin Johnson in the way players respond to the way he leads, and Wannenburg has come from perhaps the best club side in the world [the Bulls].

"This recruitment wasn't done on an ad-hoc basis. We don't know how they will react to northern hemisphere rugby but they have been good in our pre-season friendlies. We feel they are suitable for this league."

Ulster have not won any form of silverware since they clinched the Magners title at the home of the Ospreys in 2006 but the Welsh region broke a two-year domestic stranglehold previously held by fellow Irish giants Leinster and Munster following their Grand Final victory in May.

Now Humphreys, whose side kick off the new campaign with a home tie against the defending champions at Ravenhill, reckons it is the ideal opportunity to prove they are a match for their countrymen and further afield.

"There are always going to be different landmarks when you are dealing with history," he said. "Certain teams will be judged against that and I accept the challenge. Our team understands we have not performed for the last four years. But I believe that we have closed the gap on Munster and Leinster and the players have the chance to show that. All the ingredients are there."

Tommy Bowe will return to Belfast after being named as the inaugural Magners League Players' Player of the Year to accompany the titles he had already collected from his peers in Ireland and Wales.

The Munster stalwart Paul O'Connell believes his compatriot will only get better, saying: "Tommy had a great season for the Ospreys and Ireland and is becoming a leader. He's been scoring tries for fun, his strike-rate is great but he's now a go-to player as well. He has been a marked man for a while yet he is doing well. He's such a clever player, like Brian O'Driscoll, and he will keep getting better as he gains more experience."