Friday 23 March 2018

'It's hard to knock a west of Ireland person down'

Former Connacht stalwart McFarland knows Glasgow are in for a real battle on his first return to Galway

Dan McFarland has played a huge part in Connacht’s emergence as a top team; now his job is to help Glasgow beat them Photo: Sportsfile
Dan McFarland has played a huge part in Connacht’s emergence as a top team; now his job is to help Glasgow beat them Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When the story of Connacht's rise is told, Dan McFarland's part will be a prominent one. He spent a sizeable chunk of his life helping to build the province up; now his job is to halt their march.

For 15 years, the prop turned forwards coach was part of the fabric at the Sportsground, acting as assistant to the three coaches who have turned Ireland's fourth province into a fighting force at the top of the table.

Yet, instead of being alongside Pat Lam in the coaching booth tomorrow as the men in green look to finish the regular season as the top team in the Guinness Pro12, McFarland will take his seat beside Gregor Townsend at the back of the Clan Terrace.

This time last year, he bade an emotional farewell on the Sportsground pitch alongside Michael Swift as the duo who soldiered through the bad times together at Connacht came out the other side. McFarland reckoned it was time for something new, so he packed his bags and moved to Glasgow.

In the weeks that followed, McFarland's new club claimed the Pro12 title and he moved to the champions over the summer. Under Townsend, the formerly unfashionable club from a non-traditional rugby city have become a powerhouse, playing an excellent brand of attacking rugby. The parallels with Connacht are clear.

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"The number one thing that stands out to me is a willingness to work hard and a resilience," McFarland says of the similarities between the two clubs.

"Connacht is an extremely resilient place. Not just the rugby, but the people. They're used to withstanding all sorts of outside influences and standing up and fighting back.

"It's very difficult to knock a west of Ireland person down, because you just know that they'll stand back up again.

"That is combined with a work ethic. Lads work hard knowing that when they play for Connacht they'll have to work hard or they're not going to fit in.

"It's the same here: Glasgow weren't as successful a way back and they've worked hard to create a consistency through that work ethic and that never say die spirit.

"We have a job to do, we know where we're going and it's striking that both clubs have a purpose that's clear.

"The development aspect of Scottish rugby and rugby in Glasgow is very important here. You can see that in Connacht as well. 'Grass roots to green shirts' is a catchy phrase, but it does actually stand for something meaningful.

Pat Lam (PA)

"The people of Connacht, the players, the academy structures, Pat (Lam), Eric (Elwood) on the domestic side and Willie (Ruane, the chief executive). . . everyone involved there genuinely believes that they have a higher purpose that goes beyond just winning matches.

"They want kids who are playing in Roscommon to believe that they can go from playing for their grass-roots club to playing for Ireland and that's a terrific thing to drive you above the day-to-day work."

The timing of his departure seems unfortunate, given the success he worked so hard towards has finally arrived. But McFarland doesn't see it that way.

"I regret nothing. I have a lot of ties still with people in Connacht, with my friends there, and to see them do well is brilliant," he explains.

"Would I have liked to be a part of that? It's a hypothetical question, it doesn't apply because I love being here. It's been great, I've enjoyed coming into work and having to improve each day. It's testing and that's great, so at no point have I regretted it at all.

"Did I see it coming? Well, I always knew that Connacht was developing; it has been non-stop.

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"There's a great book by Malcolm Gladwell called Tipping Point which talks about development, about ideas that gradually gain a bit of momentum and then all of a sudden they tip over the edge because a number of things fall into place. I always felt that was going to be the case with Connacht.

"It was once described by Paul O'Donoghoe in the dressing-room: we'd lost a game and I don't think he'd been playing, but he stood up and talked about the journey we were on and that he genuinely felt that there was an end to this journey.

"It struck me that he believed the same thing that I did, that we were on a journey that wasn't aimless, that we didn't know where we were going. We f***ing knew full well where we were going, it was just a question of making sure we stayed on the path."

McFarland simply felt that his own journey needed a change, some new experiences and a fresh challenge.

It has been a strange season for Glasgow, who were hit hard by World Cup call-ups early on and struggled to garner momentum, coming up well short of expectations in a tough European pool.

Yet they arrive in Galway having won nine in a row and looking every inch a team who can retain their title.

"I thought it would be more of a shock than it was and the reason is that even though I was in Connacht for 15 years, I worked with a lot of different people," McFarland says of the change.

"In Glasgow we've a mindset that's very similar in being open-minded. That's what I looked for when I was coming."

This weekend is his first time to return since packing up his house and making the move.

"I'm an emotional guy, so there will obviously be some emotion. I'd like to think that I'll be able to store that up until after the game," he says.

"Emotion can help, it's a great motivator, but only if it doesn't get in the way of clear thinking. So, I have to be able to think clearly when I'm sat in the little box at the back of the Clann Stand. I have to have a focused mind.

"It's strange, when I preview them I need to look with a clear mind because I have a certain amount of knowledge about their systems, but I can't second guess or try and out-think them in terms of bluff and double-bluff, it doesn't work like that.

"I have to be clear and straight down the line in the way that I'm thinking, analysing them using the information I have an understanding that they have an excellent ability to set you up one week and then sting you the next."

With the Sportsground long sold out, it's set to be a special occasion. It's not easy to knock a west of Ireland person down, well tomorrow McFarland's job is to do just that.

Irish Independent

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