'I have worked since '81 to get to this goal'
Brian McLaughlin is ready for his biggest day in rugby, as he tells Brendan Fanning
Last Tuesday night in a pub in Comber, Co Down, Ulster had one of their question and answer sessions where the punters get to quiz the stars. The team of South Africans Pedrie Wannenberg, Stefan Terblanche and Robbie Diack was supplemented by Andy Matchett, scrumhalf on the side that won the European Cup in 1999. Coach Brian McLaughlin was there as well.
"I just went and shook hands with a few people I hadn't seen in a long time," he says. "I didn't go on the Q&A. I let the boys do that and it was very well done. The people loved it. I stayed out of it because there would have been all sorts of questions -- they're quite passionate down there and I didn't want them coming up with any bad banter so I told Nigel Carr (host on the night) there was to be none of that there, so he steered that well away. It would have been awful if the boys had been embroiled in a campaign against Ulster rugby!"
The subtext to Ulster's preparation for their second European final is the imminent move sideways of their coach. Sometimes it's in the main text. It is a uniquely awkward situation where a coach who has taken a team where they haven't been for so long is being moved aside for a man with nothing comparable on his own cv.
McLaughlin would sooner give you the Ulster lineout codes than run through his feelings on the issue, which is fair enough given that Ulster are his employers and he is scheduled to continue on the Academy side of the car park once it's all over at the end of the month.
You wonder though what might happen if an offer came in, if some club in England or France reckoned McLaughlin's steady progress in the Ulster job over the last three seasons was something they might use in their changing room. He accepts it would be "exceptionally difficult" to get him out of a part of the world that's a part of who he is. For example, he describes Comber, overlooking Strangford Lough, as follows:
"It's a smashing place; I'm born and raised there. It's a very friendly little country town but it's very handy obviously for Belfast, only nine or 10 miles out. If I leave at the right time I can be in work in 25 minutes. I'm on the outskirts, in a little village called Ardmillan, living there for near 20 years now. Whenever you come off the top road heading towards Killinchy and you turn down the Ardmillan Road it's just a picture postcard all the way down. It's just heaven."
His folks are there as well. McLaughlin's grandfather moved there from Ballybay in the late 1920s to manage the local branch of the Northern Bank. The family have been part of the fabric of the town ever since. You associate Brian McLaughlin first and foremost with RBAI, one of the heavyweights of Ulster schools rugby, because of his remarkable record of taking them to five titles from eight finals (he brought Wallace High School to one as well before he fetched up at Inst in 1982 as a physical education teacher), though he went himself to Regent House.
His dad, who was a keen Instonian, worked in the linen industry in Belfast and had a little business on Murray Street, which overlooks the grounds of RBAI. "Back in the '70s he'd be sitting in his office looking at all the Inst boys standing out on the grass in the college square because of another bloody bomb scare, so he said: 'No way is my kid going to get an education standing out on the lawn avoiding bombs!' So we three boys all went to Regent House in Newtownards. It didn't do me any harm. It was a great school."
As it happened, he was part of one of the great Regent House teams alongside future internationals Nigel Carr and Philip Matthews. In time Carr and himself would be best man at each other's weddings. While the future Ireland flankers went on to be part of the imperious Ulster team of the 1980s, under the late Jimmy Davidson, and Triple Crown winners with Ireland, McLaughlin played a bit himself with Ards. Coaching, however, would be his thing.
That's where he came across Eddie O'Sullivan. They started out on the circuit around the same time, and when O'Sullivan got the Ireland under 21 gig -- an important rung on the coaching ladder -- he brought McLaughlin in as his forwards coach. O'Sullivan appreciated the technical detail McLaughlin brought to the task. They got on well and thought about rugby the same way. Already friends, when they both moved on from that they kept in touch. O'Sullivan was not too long in the Ireland senior job when he gave McLaughlin a shout to come and help higher up the line.
"I think the thing for me at that stage was -- and it was a crucial thing for me in my time with Ireland -- that I knew all the guys because the majority of them had come through the under 21 structure," McLaughlin says. "Guys like Drico, Mick O'Driscoll, Donncha O'Callaghan, David Wallace, Frankie Sheahan. One of the first few sessions I had down there was during the Six Nations in CityWest and Keith Wood and Axel [Anthony Foley] came to me afterwards, we'd been doing a rucking session, and said: 'Where did you get all this? It's just what we need'."
The rooms in CityWest were enormous. Plenty of space for McLaughlin and O'Sullivan and manager Brian O'Brien to do some practical rucking work before they would take it outside to the players.
"Those days were fantastic. Leaving the Shelbourne Hotel and driving down to Lansdowne Road last weekend, the only thing that came close to it was leaving Croke Park after beating England (in 2007) and going to the Shelbourne. O'Connell Street was just lined with green and white that night and last Saturday it was red and white. It was just fantastic. You can't buy that, and those are the little things that you just never, never forget. Saturday was probably the biggest day of my rugby life. And the other one was that Triple Crown win over England in Croker. And that's an Ulster prod saying Croker!"
Eight months later, he was backed against a wall along with O'Sullivan in a Paris hotel, literally inches away from a forest of microphones. It was the morning after Ireland's exit from the World Cup, a tournament they had gone into with their third Triple Crown in three seasons and stratospherically high expectations of breaking new ground at the big show. And they did: it was the first time Ireland failed to get out of their pool.
"None of us wanted to be there that morning but we knew it had to be done, and to be fair Eddie took the heat and none of us were asked anything. We were there to support him but jeepers it was a barrage coming at him."
That was October 1. Five months later, McLaughlin was packing his bags along with O'Sullivan and the rest of the coaching team after England had emptied them in Twickenham. Remarkably, it had been the first time since coming across them at 21s that McLaughlin had been on a losing team against England. The final will be his first time back there.
Heading back to RBAI after that, where he had taken leave of absence, it was hard to envisage him being where he is now. To his credit, he got stuck back into schools and club coaching (his club cv includes Instonians, Ballynahinch, Malone and Ards) and was in good nick when Ulster needed to replace Matt Williams in 2009. McLaughlin is of classic Ulster rugby stock: pragmatic, passionate and prod. Under his leadership each season has had a slightly different theme, but the constant has been about Ulster values of who they are and how hard they are prepared to work. He has had great support from the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland, not just in provision of facilities but also, through its athlete services manager Peter McCabe, as a bouncing board for ideas and plans.
"We would take an idea to him and he would come back with something and between us we'd take it on," says McLaughlin. "It was about bringing an Ulster flavour to everybody in the first season. The next year when David (Humphreys) and I sat down we agreed that over the years Ulster had been guilty of bringing in foreign players who were just foreign players, and that if we were going to bring in anybody they had to be better than what we had. And they had to be prepared to opt into everything Ulster was, and wanted. And they also had to be in a position where they weren't just coming to play rugby, they had to be a part of the whole thing, to leave their legacy. They had to build and show what was required from our youngsters, our Academy players. I think we've done that exceptionally well.
"I think the way you set goals is very important. You can get guys to write things down but we've tried to do it differently each year. This season we wanted to do our damnedest in Europe because in the quarter-final against Northampton last season we let ourselves down a bit. We went there more in hope than expectation, as in years before. Now that expectation thing has changed dramatically, and going into the semi-final was right up there with where we want to be."
And where does he want to be himself, has he considered the comedown that will be the albeit very important work of breeding the next generation?
"At the minute I've one thing in my head and that's the final. But I have to start thinking about that. You know rugby's a way of life for me. Like, whenever I finished with Ireland I had to go back into school and it was good, it wasn't a bother -- we were back in the schools cup final the year after. So it's a change and as you go through life you have to accept there's going to be change and you put it behind you, great days, time to move on, time for another new challenge and that's exactly what this is, another new challenge."
"This (coaching Ulster) is something I always wanted to do. This was my one aim. With Philip (Matthews) and Nigel (Carr) in the back row I was never going to get a look at it and probably wasn't good enough on the day but I've worked since '81 with one objective and that's to get to this goal. And, in fairness, to get to a European Cup final is a great way to get out. I think the one thing that has really helped was having Ulster people with me. Like Jonny Bell and Neil Doak. Last year Jeremy (Davidson) was in that coaching team as well. It's just a smashing place to work."
That remains to be seen. It is inescapable that his relationship with Humphreys and chief executive Shane Logan has suffered in the last couple of months. The next act in this play surely is for the team to save their best form till last.
"Ulster have that self-belief back," he says. "They've got that little bit of -- we haven't got the arrogance of Leinster yet and I don't mean that in a derogatory way at all -- but we haven't got to where we can hold our heads up and beat anybody, we're not there yet. But Jeez we're not terribly far away."
McLaughlin can be proud of his role in closing that gap.
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