By their own admission, Ulster underachieved last season, missing out on the Guinness PRO12 play-offs, but the 2017/18 campaign will see a new-look set-up at the Kingspan Stadium.
While Les Kiss continues as director of rugby, the arrival of head coach Jono Gibbes should have a big impact, with the New Zealander already well-versed in what it takes to succeed in the league, having won the title in both 2013 and 2014 with Leinster.
Now, after a three-year stint with Clermont in the Top 14, Gibbes is coming back to the Guinness PRO12 where he will work alongside Kiss at Ulster.
GIBBES THE PLAYER
A relentless blindside flanker who was also a more than handy lineout option, Gibbes plied his trade for Waikato and the Chiefs over eight years before injury cut short his career at the age of 31.
Gibbes was a natural leader, captaining the Chiefs for six seasons after making his debut for them in 2001.
At Test level he was caught between two positions, capable of playing both in the second and the back row, and found himself stuck behind the late Jerry Collins at blindside flanker.
He did play eight Tests for the All Blacks though, the last of which saw him come off the bench against the Lions in Wellington the day Dan Carter produced his fly-half masterclass in 2005.
Gibbes had played his own part in rugby history earlier in the Tour when he led the New Zealand Maori, as they were known then, to an historic first win over the Lions.
While he was suffering with a foot injury, it didn’t show it and captained the team to a famous 19-13 success.
FIRST STEPS IN COACHING
In 2008 Gibbes had been forced to retire, and he chose to head north to join Leinster and work under Michael Cheika.
There he worked exclusively as the forwards coach but he did so to great effect as Leinster enjoyed tremendous success over a six-year spell.
During that time they claimed two Guinness PRO12 titles, along with three European Cups, with Gibbes a key figure both under Cheika, and then Joe Schmidt.
He and Schmidt worked well together, the two New Zealanders helping Leinster to successive European titles, and he continued for a further season under Matt O’Connor before heading to France.
In 2014 Gibbes moved to Clermont where he had big boots to fill, with Vern Cotter leaving the club after eight years in charge.
It was a bold decision, heading to a country where he did not speak the language, but that venture outside his comfort zone was a successful one.
He did not take on the top job, but continued as the forwards boss under new head coach Franck Azéma, taking on many of Cotter’s responsibilities with the pack.
In charge of a Clermont team who had been among the best in Europe for a decade, but with a reputation for missing out on silverware, Gibbes’ first season in charge saw the team lose in the finals of both the Champions Cup and the Top 14.
While the 2015/16 season ended in disappointment, Gibbes was able to go out on a high last season as Clermont reached the final of the Champions Cup and then won only their second Top 14 title.
ON TO ULSTER
The coming season will be a step into the unknown for Ulster – they bid farewell to both Ruan Pienaar and Roger Wilson at the end of the last campaign.
Gibbes comes in as head coach for the first time in his career, and having previously talked about the importance of affinities within coaching staff – both with regards to Schmidt and Azéma – it’s no surprise that his relationship with Kiss played an important part in his decision.
He said: “The respect that I have for Les [Kiss], as a coach and as a person, was one of my main reasons for making this decision.
“He really sold his vision of where he wants to take Ulster over the next few years.”
Joining the duo will be former Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel, who has been coaching at Bristol in recent seasons, with his appointment announced at the same time as Gibbes.
Whether the new coaching staff will prove successful remains to be seen – there is no shortage of competition looking ahead to the new Guinness PRO12 campaign.
But in terms of pedigree, Gibbes certainly has plenty to call on both within in the Guinness PRO12, and further afield.