Thursday 20 September 2018

Comment: Highly-rated Dan McFarland the man to steady ship for Ulster

 

Dan McFarland learned his trade as a coach under Pat Lam at Connacht and will be under no illusions about the size of the task that he faces in taking the reins at Ulster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE
Dan McFarland learned his trade as a coach under Pat Lam at Connacht and will be under no illusions about the size of the task that he faces in taking the reins at Ulster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Given the year they've just had, it would be easy to see the Ulster job as something of a poisoned chalice. After all, having Brian O'Driscoll refer to your organisation as "a bit of a basket-case" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.

Dan McFarland clearly thinks otherwise.

Highly regarded and in a good job coaching Scotland's forwards under Gregor Townsend, the Englishman has seen potential amidst the negative headlines and is willing to take the challenge of reviving fortunes at Kingspan Stadium head on.

Perhaps if he had known that Connacht were going to be on the look-out for a new coach he might have held fire, but as someone who knows Irish rugby inside out the 46-year-old is well aware of the potential of Ulster.

The SRU are unhappy that he's going, not least because they are handing a critical part of their brains trust over to a World Cup rival just over a year out from the tournament in Japan.

However, while the release circulated from Murrayfield said he will serve out his notice period in its entirety and won't start work in his new position until January, Ulster are quietly confident he'll be released once a replacement is found and hope he'll be in situ before pre-season begins.

That is just as well, because an impatient and disillusioned fan-base don't want a repeat of 2015 when Ulster waited until Les Kiss's Ireland duties came to an end before the Australian took over.

That episode is just one of a series of mis-steps that have led to this point for Ulster.

Turbulent

It has been a turbulent couple of years, but the last few months have been barely believable as courtroom scandal heaped misery on a club that has endured loss, change and a downturn in results since reaching the Heineken Cup final in 2012.

Mark Anscombe, Kiss and Jono Gibbes have come and gone with big reputations tarnished by the experience.

What the Ravenhill faithful and dressing-room need now is stability and growth as they look to rebuild themselves into a team capable of competing for honours again.

And the former prop forward who spent 15 years at Connacht is the man tasked with doing just that.

The raw materials at his disposal are decent, but not spectacular and he will be tasked with building a team around Jacob Stockdale, John Cooney, Rory Best, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy next season.

With former player and current director of operations Bryn Cunningham in charge of recruitment, McFarland's role will be shaping the culture and playing style of his squad.

Top of Cunningham's list is an out-half, although the province have still not given up on Joey Carbery changing his mind and news of a meeting between the youngster and Joe Schmidt yesterday could be met with optimism in Belfast.

Certainly, talk of an overseas recruit appears to have cooled.

Whatever about the man running it, the backline will need good ball and McFarland's main challenge is to turn a pack that has been too often deemed soft by opponents into something to be feared.

Gibbes constantly seemed flummoxed by his forwards' inability to impose themselves on the game and he arrived with a serious reputation.

With Scotland, McFarland has been credited with adding a hard edge to the pack as results improved under Townsend, while his Connacht pack made big strides despite limited resources.

Of course moving from the backroom to the front of house presents challenges and, after being popular with players during his time as an assistant, he will have to deal with the big decisions and managing players' disappointments.

There is also a lot of expectation around Ulster and real disappointment at the way things have gone in the past few seasons.

Things have been bordering on mutinous in recent weeks and relations with fans and the local press will need some mending.

Results are always a good way of curing those sort of issues, but after a fractious year in which the trial left a deep stain on the reputation of the club, there is work to be done on rebuilding Ulster's place in the world.

It is not an easy job, but McFarland has long wanted to move into the main job and will relish the task. He is known for his compassion as well as his technical nous and will hope to build a winning mentality quickly within the dressing-room.

Although he won't get a whole new coaching team, Dwayne Peel, Aaron Dundon and Niall Malone will offer some continuity while two new assistants - most notably a defence specialist - will help.

Jared Payne could be a runner for that job if he fails to make it back on to the pitch and it is felt within Ulster that the side need to move closer to the Ireland national team's style of defending in the way that the other provinces do.

Ulster will have worked closely with the IRFU to appoint their man and for Schmidt and David Nucifora the importance of a healthy, firing northern province is paramount to the success of the overall picture.

They may be quite a way off becoming the number one club in Europe on and off the pitch as chief executive Shane Logan promised, but the appointment of a shrewd new head coach is an important step in moving on from a terrible year.

The potential is there, even if hasn't been fulfilled in recent seasons. Ulster has top-level facilities, a number of Ireland internationals and a strong, passionate fan-base.

McFarland's task is not an easy one, but he will throw himself into it and will have the required backing of an organisation in desperate need of a good news story.

A three-year contract is an investment of faith and after all of their upheaval there needs to be patience as he begins the rebuild.

If Gibbes can deliver him the parting gift of Champions Cup rugby through the play-off all the better, but after a shocking year the only way is up for a once-proud province and their new coach.

New Ravenhill coach boasts strong links with Connacht

Although he is born and bred in England, Dan McFarland is a coach shaped in Ireland.

From 2000 to 2015, he was part of the furniture at the Sportsground; playing prop for Connacht until 2006 before taking up a role as forwards coach to Michael Bradley when he retired.

He quickly built a reputation as a quality coach and was also involved internationally, assisting Eric Elwood with the U-20s in the 2007 Grand Slam-winning campaign. He also coached the Emerging Ireland and Ireland Wolfhounds teams.

He remained in situ through two coaching changes, serving under Elwood and Pat Lam but, having missed out on the top job to the Samoan in 2014, he decided it was time to develop his career elsewhere and took up an opportunity to work under Gregor Townsend at Glasgow.

When his new boss was promoted to the Scotland job a year later, McFarland followed him into the international arena and has been credited with developing a harder edge among the Scots' forward pack.

Now 46, he has had a long-held ambition to become a head coach and appears to be a good fit for Ulster.

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