McFarland: Connacht snub was a blessing in disguise
When mapping out his career as a young coach, Dan McFarland hoped he would one day be in the visitors' coaching box come occasions like this Saturday.
The man who has guided Ulster back to the PRO14 knockouts, and will see his side face Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in the quarter-finals, once coveted the top job in Galway.
Having played for Richmond and Stade Francais, he settled in the west of Ireland as a player and then a forwards coach when Sportsground legend Eric Elwood left in 2013.
McFarland applied for the post before the job went to Pat Lam. Connacht won the league just three years later, and McFarland went to Scotland, first with Glasgow and then the national side, before returning to Ireland last summer to replace Jono Gibbes and head up Ulster's ticket.
"For a long time I thought that I'd like to be the Connacht head coach," he reflected. "I didn't get it and I was gutted. I thought everyone except me was wrong. It took me a month to realise that I was wrong and didn't deserve the job.
"It was a good job I didn't get it because I wasn't ready. Pat came in and it opened my eyes to the fact I had to move on.
"I could have stayed in Connacht forever. I loved the place and I still do, but in terms of growth, I had to go somewhere else to learn and I was very lucky Gregor (Townsend, then Glasgow coach) asked me to do that. It gave me the chance to broaden my horizons."
Ulster, at home, are favourites but recent form is with Connacht, the only side McFarland's men have faced twice this season without beating.
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Their win over Ulster in October was their first in Belfast in 58 years, and they have won the last three games against their northern neighbours.
"Andy Friend has done a very good job there," McFarland said. "He's brought back a positive culture.
"They play similarly to ourselves. We look to play a game full of collective speed that has intent in our collisions. For us, if we don't match that or beat it, we won't win the game."
While Connacht will be without Irish international lock Quinn Roux, Ulster have been dealt a blow with the news that Jacob Stockdale is "unlikely" to feature.
With retirement looming, Rory Best trained yesterday, though, and, along with veteran centre Darren Cave, seems set for an emotional farewell to the Kingspan crowd.
"It's not really talked about at all," McFarland said. "It's not something even they want to talk about because there's too much at stake for them as professional rugby players to make sure they get their own job right.''