New Ulster CEO keen to move on from ‘old wounds’ and take province forward

NO MATTER HIS surroundings, or the Ulster logo emblazoned on his new regalia, Jonny Petrie ends his first media briefing with a reminder that he remains “a proud Scotsman” who will be cheering for the home team this weekend.

It’s a jaunty, jovial finish to what has been an intriguing 40 minutes sitting down with the newly appointed chief executive officer of Ulster Rugby as he put across his perspective on the direction of the club going forward to the assembled media.

Before that upbeat end, however, there came the inevitable, more tricky question. IRFU high performance director David Nucifora may have said he won’t close the door on a potential return for Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding after their contracts were revoked in the wake of their acquittal on rape charges last year. Ulster’s operations manager Bryn Cunningham has indicated much the same in the past.

For Petrie, though, it’s a fresh start at Ulster and he’s eager to ensure he’s not followed by the problems of his predecessor.

“This issue, looking at it from the outside, for such a long time over the course of the past couple of years at the club it has been something that has been hugely divisive on a number of fronts,” he says.

File photo: Olding and Jackson at Kingspan Stadium. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I’ve been brought here to move this place forward and to move it forward, I don’t see that we should be reopening old wounds. This needs to be about the rugby and we need to move this club forward.

“If people want to draw their own conclusions from that, that’s up to them, but I don’t see it’s in anyone’s best interests to be reopening old wounds that have caused such division within the sport and across society. I don’t see it in anyone’s best interests to revisit that.

When it comes to the rugby and the factors that will surround it in Petrie’s time ahead, the former Scotland international is well-versed in how to run a sporting club and well able to get his message across.

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A former head of sponsorship at SSE, he has held roles within Scottish Rugby and Edinburgh Rugby before making the leap to Belfast. Stakeholders around the Scottish capital held him in high regard as managing director, where his ambition preceded his abilities.

A potential permanent move to Myreside was nixed by Petrie and was replaced by a complete rebrand of the franchise, featuring a new jersey, new colour scheme and a new logo for the club, while also promising a brand new home stadium right outside Murrayfield.

Things were looking up in Edinburgh thanks to Petrie’s work. Soon they would move out of their cavernous Murrayfield home into a more welcoming yet intimidating ground just next door, while their form on the pitch indicated they were now on their way to being perennial challengers for trophies.

Meanwhile, over in Ulster, things couldn’t have been more different.

Mired in difficulties that saw them plagued by the trial of Jackson and Olding, suffering on the pitch as a result and without a head coach or director of rugby due to the departures of Jono Gibbes and Les Kiss, they soon found themselves without a chief executive too when Shane Logan left.

And yet when the job became available, it turned Petrie’s head. At the age of 42, he was ready to take on the full responsibility of being a CEO, and Ulster was where he wanted to do it, even if it meant giving up all his good work with Edinburgh.

“I look at what this club is and what it has the potential to be. You’ve got a fantastic facility here, you’ve got an engaged support base and you’ve got a team that has the capability of being at the top end of the league and European rugby,” said the former flanker.

“Looking at the set-up here, I say it was a difficult decision to come across, but in some respects, it was an absolute no brainer because of the history, the way it’s something that’s genuinely important to people here. That was an attraction.

“I’ve had a real warm welcome from the people here but the over-riding thing is that sense that people really want this to work and to be a success. That for me is something that I can grab hold of and work with.

“The challenge to that is that it’s clearly been a difficult few years but we feel that we’re coming through that and it’s important that we draw a line in the sand and move forward to make this place a success.

“That’s what I’ve been brought in to do. That’s what excites me about the opportunity and that’s what I’m giving everyone the commitment that I’ll work my backside off to make sure that happens.”

Now that he has his feet well in under his desk and has a broader sense of what needs addressed within Ulster Rugby, he can get down to that work. The first couple of months have been listening and assessing – in person and on social media – now it’s time for him to start implementing some of the things that he’s been wanting to bring in.

That being said, he’s not making any outlandish statements about future goals just yet, unlike his predecessor.

“I think it’s going to sound cliched but you want to go in and try and make this place better every day,” Petrie says pragmatically.

“There’s no point making bold proclamations of targets or what we want to be, or saying we’re going to win this or win that, but the fundamentals you need to get right.

“On and off the field, we have to do better day in and day out and see where that takes us. It’s not about fudging, and it’s not about not putting my neck on the block, lets get the basics and fundamentals right and that has us in the right direction.”

Kingspan Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

On-field performances have largely given the Kingspan Stadium a much more positive feeling, but it doesn’t completely mask some of the issues that still persist in Belfast that will need addressed.

Arguably the biggest concern is that season ticket sales have fallen for the past two years, while attendances as a whole are on the decline, unsurprisingly resulting in a loss of revenue. It is believed that Ulster’s matchday takings account for just under a third of what they bring in on an annual basis, and a decrease in paying patrons turning the barriers as they enter the stadium means a decrease in money in the coffers.

“We’ve seen falling revenues and falling attendance figures, and the direct correlation between the two, and you don’t have to be an accountant to see the link there,” opines Petrie.

“But that’s largely driven by some of the off-field challenges we’ve had where the focus hasn’t been on the rugby during those years, and equally during those times when the performance out there hasn’t been good enough. People want a product they can be proud of and that is largely successful.

“So, again, it’s not a stretch to suggest to you that if we can be accessible and engaging, and the guys are being successful out on the field there, then we’ll be able to look at bringing people back to watch Ulster play because there’s an ongoing challenge to up our investment into the professional game at the same time as we have falling revenues.

So far things have improved drastically from previous years. Sure, they may be in a dogfight for the top three in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14, but Ulster’s return to the quarter-finals of Europe is a welcome relief – both on the pitch and financially – and also provides a good blueprint for where the team wants to go moving forward.

However, there is a stark realisation within the camp that they can’t let this be a one-off. Fail to improve their league position before the end of the season and they won’t even get a chance to replicate their knockout appearance next season, which will have plenty of implications stretching beyond the quality of opposition in Europe next season.

Under new head coach Dan McFarland, things do look to be going in the right direction like with Petrie, and the chief executive admits he is aware that he has to be conscious of how important the professional team is despite his ambition to bring the game in Ulster along as a whole.

McFarland and Payne oversee team preparation this season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“You have to have all the domestic plans, all the commercial plans, all the media plans, but largely that’s all given life and given oxygen by the success of the pro team,” admits Petrie, whose nine-year stay with the Glasgow Warriors would have given him an enviable knowledge of the intricate natures of a rugby team.

“We have to put out a good product. We need to give people a club to support that they can feel proud of and feel connected to and something that we work very hard in the background to drive on the participation of getting more people playing the sport, and ultimately more good people and players coming through and representing Ulster over time.

“There’s no sort of magic bullet, or no sort of ‘that’s the thing I’m going to hang my hat on’, it’s a very broad challenge that we need to look at, but I’m very excited to get my teeth into it and work with the good people that are already in Ulster Rugby and in rugby across the province, and to drive them forwards.”

Jonny Petrie has arrived in Belfast and if, like has happened in the past, his words are backed up by his actions, then Ulster have reason to feel they have got the right man.

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