Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# growth mindset
No snow days or viral videos as McFarland revs Ulster up for Pro14
The Ulster head coach is pushing for growth rather than targets as his side ramp up a challenge in two tournaments.

FOR SOMEONE WHO is renowned in being intent on finding any way he can to gut out that extra 1% from his players, Dan McFarland was surprisingly coy when asked about Rassie Erasmus’ recent Twitter activity.

The Ulster head coach grins when ashed what he made of the Springbok director of rugby’s decision to release clips of his pre-match player meetings. After all, it seems like the kind of thing that McFarland would be all over. Instead, the response is that he’s only seen part of one of the five videos posted thus far.

“It was interesting. I don’t really have an opinion on it,” says McFarland. And when asked whether he would release such footage himself, he adds:

“Not until I’ve won a World Cup final.”

Tweet by @Rassie Erasmus Rassie Erasmus / Twitter Rassie Erasmus / Twitter / Twitter

That will have to wait, then. But it does raise the question of how he feels his own impact in Belfast has gone up to this point now we’ve hit the 18-month mark of his arrival at Ulster.

Known for his in-depth psychological insight into the game, his meticulous attention to detail, his goal of squeezing every drop out of his players, McFarland insists there was no timeline on his grand plan for Ulster.

“I didn’t know where we’d be right now. Genuinely, I didn’t. I didn’t forecast anything at 18 months,” says the head coach.

It’s not avoiding the question, far from it. McFarland has always been open and transparent with his ambitions and targets for his team. Rather it is perhaps a reflection on where McFarland gauges success for his Ulster side right now. While the fans may be clamouring for the province to return to the top table of competing for trophies, the former Connacht prop instead chooses this moment to point out the work going on behind the scenes.

“I’d be pretty pleased with the development of where we are rugby-wise and also the development of individuals, both of us as coaches and the playing group, and support staff,” he continues.

“The support staff here have a great growth mindset. They want to develop, they want to learn. It’s a big part of what we try and do every day. It’s not just the performance we do, it’s are we getting better and doing all the things that we say we want to do?

“It’s the same for the players. We had a visitor in not too long along and the quote they said was, ‘There really seems to be a learning environment in here’, and they questioned why that is.

If you coach hard, you really care about getting better and the players getting better, and you have a young group who are desperate to get better because they’re the guys you choose to be in the squad, it’s probably going to be emergent.”

The questions are coming after Ulster’s three-week break following the conclusion of their Heineken Champions Cup campaign, the province preparing for a trip to the beleaguered Ospreys on Saturday on their return to Guinness PRO14 action as they aim to continue a particularly purple patch.

McFarland’s side have tasted defeat just once since the turn of the year and a total of four times this season as they’ve romped into the quarter-finals of Europe for a second year in succession and established themselves as one of the favourites to finish in the play-off spots domestically.

Complacency doesn’t even factor into the equation for McFarland, but Ulster could, theoretically, lose twice and still be ahead of the fourth-placed Glasgow Warriors. That’s not enough to leave McFarland relaxed heading into a three-game stretch during the Six Nations.

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stuart-mccloskey Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Stuart McCloskey could feature with Ulster after training with Ireland in recent weeks. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

After travelling to Swansea to meet Ospreys on Saturday, Ulster could strengthen their hand even further if they beat nearest rivals in the table the Cheetahs at Kingspan Stadium the following week, with a trip to Benetton on deck after that.

Three wins would shorten the odds on them being one of the six play-off teams at the end of the season considerably. Add in a bonus point or two and those odds drop further. But don’t offer them to McFarland just yet.

“Given the nature of the Conference and the way the Cheetahs’ fixture list is for the rest of the season and the way Glasgow are playing at the moment, you don’t want to be slipping up,” warns the Englishman.

“We’ve got to go away to Ospreys, we play our direct rivals who are closest to us in Cheetahs the following week, and then we go away to Treviso, which is notoriously hard. It’s going to be really testing.

“Last year we went to the Ospreys during this period and won what I thought was a really thrilling game. We played really well in that game during the Six Nations period and it finished 8-0. That was a hard, hard grind. I don’t expect anything less this time.”

Add to that the influence of Storm Ciara, which has been playing havoc with Ulster’s preparation for this game given the wild conditions that have hit Belfast. Tuesday’s training session at their Pirrie Park base was carried out in a blizzard of snow and sleet, something which the team are preparing to face on Saturday too.

dan-mcfarland-arrives-ahead-of-the-game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ulster boss Dan McFarland. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

McFarland, however, saw an opportunity. Another chance to drive this team onwards. Another chance to take them outside their comfort zone. He may not have seen all of Erasmus’ videos, but McFarland is leading the same work ethic, the same ‘desperation’ as his Springbok counterpart. That means no snow days.

It’s all about driving those standards constantly. No rest, no relaxation, no complacency, always improving. That’s the McFarland way, and he is determined that’s how Ulster will be approaching the rest of this season now their break is over.

“There a lot of benefits from training inside in terms of skill development, but we would never shy away from training outside. We trained outside (on Tuesday) morning fully in horrendous conditions and the skill level from the lads, the enthusiasm and the energy was fantastic,” concludes the head coach. 

“It might be weather like this, but you want to go home at the end of the day and think yeah, I’ve made a difference there, or so and so has got better there, or look at how we have managed as a group to develop that process.

“You’ve got targets in what you’re doing. Everything needs to grow, and all we’re trying to do is increase the rate of that growth.”

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