Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Bryan Keane/INPHO
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'To leave in the middle of a season, things must be at a pretty low ebb'

Eoin Toolan believes Ulster need to appoint a coach whose philosophy will maximise returns from their talented backline.

WEDNESDAY’S PREVIEW OF the 2024 Super Rugby season on Rugby Weekly Extra took a brief detour closer to home in light of the Irish Independent’s overnight report that head coach Dan McFarland is set to leave Ulster with immediate effect.

The Englishman has coached Ulster for the past six years but after a poor recent run of form, Sunday’s URC defeat at Ospreys may well have proved “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, according to former Ireland performance coach Eoin Toolan.

The Rugby Weekly Extra analyst joined host Gavan Casey to discuss McFarland’s departure and said that a coaching change at this stage of a season — a rarity not only in Irish rugby, but in the sport generally — suggested that McFarland’s position at the northern province had become “untenable”.

Toolan, who previously coached with Super Rugby’s Melbourne Rebels and Japan’s Kintetsu Liners, also pointed towards the respective departures of Dwayne Peel and Jared Payne as a turning point for the worse during McFarland’s tenure.

“There was an alarming nature to the lack of progression in the squad over the last 18 months,” Toolan said. “We’d previously thought they were on an upward trajectory and that seems to have stalled.

“Their win ratio over the last couple of seasons would still have been pretty high but such are the demands and expectations of what is a pretty talented squad, the pressure has come on it appears. And to leave in the middle of a season, things must be at a pretty low ebb.

“I will go back and say I think the losses of Dwayne Peel and Jared Payne, particularly, were really critical and they coincide with the stall in progression in the team.

“It’s really important who you surround yourself with. The head coach is obviously doing a lot of the background, but the guys that are in front of the playing group day to day, presenting to them: they’ve got a really critical role but on the field and off the field.”

Toolan added that the process behind the appointment of McFarland’s successor would be “critically important”.

The former Ireland coach suggested that Ulster’s squad profile demands a “more dynamic brand” of attacking rugby than what McFarland’s side has produced over the last 18 months, and said that he hoped an Irish coach would be in the frame to take the reins at Ravenhill.

“We’ve talked about it on the pod, about a possible lack of identity in terms of what they stand for as a side,” said Toolan.

“Like, obviously, they’ve leveraged their maul, they’ve recruited South African-profile types of players at a large expense who potentially haven’t quite paid off for them. And when you look at how talented the backline is, you would suspect they need to embrace a little bit more of a dynamic brand of rugby.

“It all needs to marry up: your game model, the profile of your squad, where you want to invest, and the profile of coach that you want to bring in to be able to deliver on that formula.

“It’s a really important appointment and you would hope that there is going to be some homegrown coaches at least considered for the role.”

Elsewhere on Wednesday’s pod, Toolan and host Gavan Casey also conducted a thorough preview of the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific campaign, with assessments of each team’s chances, players to watch, and season predictions.

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