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'We ask for that 'fight for every inch' mentality': McFarland's Ulster walking the walk

Ulster are in Port Elizabeth for the first stop on their South African mini-tour.

McFarland: settling into life as a head coach.
McFarland: settling into life as a head coach.
Image: Matt Mackey/INPHO

AS ULSTER PLUGGED away last week, desperately searching for a late winner against Edinburgh, ironically the calmest man inside Kingspan Stadium was inside the coaches’ box.

Because despite the fact his side, for the second week running, were one mistake away from a home defeat, Dan McFarland wasn’t pacing or frantically scribbling down notes or shouting at his players.

Rather, he was serene. And this is what we’ll learn to expect from him.

“I’m learning that job as head coach in the box. I don’t mind saying that,” admits McFarland, whose Ulster career is off to a promising start with two wins and no losses.

“As a forwards coach it is around lineouts, scrums, analysing the contact, gathering that information and then feeding it in where necessary to guys on the pitch.

“I’m not really a coach that likes to keep pumping information to the players, you know? I see it but they generally feel it.

“As a head coach it is different, You are watching a big-picture scenario. You are trying to see how the momentum of the game is flowing and ebbing one way or the other, and seeing if there is a bigger picture, tactical things that needs to be passed down.

“At the moment I am learning that process and I am making use of the guys’ expertise either side of me. I will try and do that and get the information from Dwayne and Jared, who are excellent in their areas at being able to distill that information and then pass it to me.

“I was not great in the first week, I do not believe I was, In the second week I was much better, much calmer, had a much better process to be able to process their information and make decisions and give feedback at half time and stuff like that.”

In some ways, where Ulster fans are going to have to take the bad – whenever it comes – with the good, they’re also going to have to give their head coach a bye ball occasionally too. After all, he is a rookie coach.

But so far, things are off to a good start. Sure, they’ll have wanted more convincing wins to kick off the new campaign, but two wins over play-off rivals the Scarlets and Edinburgh won’t go amiss.

It means already they are three points up on last season’s results, with this week’s trip to the Southern Kings a great chance to really kick their game up a gear and start showcasing that attacking flair.

That being said, McFarland is delighted with what he’s seen so far, perhaps not in all facets of Ulster’s performances, but certainly in one aspect that he stressed the moment he arrived in Belfast.

The former Connacht prop explains: “We sit here now having watched a team come back in the second half being down on two occasions in both second halves and win the games.

“It is all very well saying, ‘I wish it had been this or that,’ but which did we get more out of? Having won reasonably comfortably and drifted in the last 20 minutes, or finding out about the fellas in the last 20 minutes and what they are capable of doing when they are put under pressure?

“Early on, we ask for that ‘fight for every inch’ mentality. Well I have seen that in two second halves in a row and we mechanised that through different behaviours and we talk about the kind of behaviours that means.

“Did I see that? Yeah, 100%. In the second half definitely.”

Now they head to the southern hemisphere, with the annual trip to South Africa early in the calendar and a double against the Kings and Cheetahs next to manoeuvre.

Last season’s first foray onto very foreign soil was almost a disaster, with a ragged game in the rather ragged Isaac Wolfson Stadium nearly ending in an embarrassing defeat to the Kings, with Ulster’s blushes saved by a late Robbie Diack try.

This season you would expect there to be no such complacency and a much better structured game-plan than the one they wielded last time they arrived in Port Elizabeth with, and five points, you imagine, has to be the only acceptable outcome.

And while going away with the squad for an extended period will be good for McFarland – who, remember, came in very close to the start of the season – to bond with his still new squad, the head coach knows this there’s a job to do first and foremost.

“Alongside the rugby we are there to do a job, we are very focused on doing that job under tough circumstances against two teams which will provide tough opposition,” says McFarland.

“The experience of going to South Africa is excellent and is one that isn’t offered by any other league. I think it is terrific.

“As you grow older, you think back to the rugby playing experiences you had and now some of those young lads will be able to go to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth and enjoy these other rugby cultures and rugby experiences and it is only going to add to their development.”

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