Thursday 20 June 2019

McFarland eager to seize 'opportunity' in Ulster hot seat

Dan McFarland. Photo: Sportsfile
Dan McFarland. Photo: Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

Seated in what will soon become a familiar chair, new Ulster head coach Dan McFarland could have passed for a native if the English accent hadn't betrayed him.

As he addressed the media for the first time since his belated arrival at Kingspan Stadium yesterday, McFarland spoke of a childhood spent transfixed by the Five Nations, vociferously cheering on green-clad hopefuls despite the presumed upset caused to his neighbours.

When he says that Trevor Ringland was his favourite player, it is not playing to the gallery. For though the 46-year-old spent his formative years in Oxfordshire, his rugby loyalties have always laid with Ireland.

"My grandfather was from Belfast - he was born here and brought up here," explained McFarland, who spent a decade and a half spent with Connacht as player and then assistant coach.

"I remember when I rung my dad and told him I was taking the job he said my granddad would be tickled pink."

Familial ties one reason perhaps that McFarland was willing to risk something of a professional purgatory to be sitting where he is today, preparing his side to host Scarlets in their Guinness PRO14 opener.

When identified as the man both Ulster and the IRFU wanted to succeed the departed Jono Gibbes, his contract with the Scottish Rugby Union was an obvious stumbling block.

He'd been in the system since leaving Connacht in 2015, first as Gregor Townsend's forward coach at Glasgow and then moving with him to the national side.

With Scotland naturally loath to lose a key lieutenant so close to the World Cup - one which, ironically enough, they will begin by meeting Ireland - a stand-off ensued.

Eager to sink his teeth into the challenge, McFarland had to bide his time until an eventual breakthrough in negotiations only two weekends ago.

"I always understood the situation," he says calmly. "There was always a willingness when the deal was done that I'd be willing to wait nine months and work my notice and that the IRFU and Ulster would be willing to wait as well. At the same time there was obviously a real desire to get that sorted earlier and eventually it was done.

"I always wanted to be a head coach. I got a good piece of advice earlier on in my career that I shouldn't be tripping over myself. You have to be ready and the opportunity had to be right. Those two things married up in this situation. Ultimately, it was a good decision. I know that in my gut."

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