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Arrival of head coach McFarland 'the last piece of the jigsaw' for Ulster

There is renewed optimism around the northern province as they look to put a difficult year behind them.

DAN MCFARLAND’S ARRIVAL as Ulster head coach two weeks out from the new season is the ‘last piece of the jigsaw’ for the northern province to move forward, according to director of rugby operations Bryn Cunningham.

Dan McFarland McFarland was Scotland assistant coach under Gregor Townsend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Irish Rugby Football Union [IRFU] yesterday announced they had secured McFarland’s early release from his contract with the Scottish Rugby Union [SRU], allowing the 46-year-old to take up the head coach position at Kingspan Stadium.

The agreement between the IRFU and SRU followed protracted negotiations between the two unions after McFarland’s former employers had insisted he serve the full notice period until January 2019.

But the Englishman, who has previously worked with Connacht, Ireland U20s and Ireland Wolfhounds, has now arrived in Belfast ahead of Ulster’s season opener against Scarlets on Saturday 1 September.

Speaking at today’s Pro14 launch in Glasgow, Cunningham admitted it was a relief to have McFarland in position after a period of uncertainty, which saw Ireland’s forwards coach Simon Easterby take charge of Ulster’s pre-season training.

“It has been a big relief,” he said. “We knew at the outset what the possibilities were and there was no certainty as to when he was coming in but it’s great we’ve come to an agreement and he’s in before the start of the competitive season.

“He’s got another couple of weeks before Scarlets to get his head around everything, his squad, the players and consider what he needs do in the short term.

“The players are excited, it feels like the last piece of the jigsaw moving forward.”

Rory Best, who remembers playing against McFarland during his six-year spell with Connacht, briefly met the new head coach upon his arrival on Monday morning before flying to Glasgow for launch.

“It just gives certainty but from our point of view, it doesn’t really change much from what we’ve done,” the Ireland captain said.

“We’ve had that consistency of Jared [Payne], Peelo [Dwayne Peel] and Aaron Dundon, we’ve had that consistency and we’ve worked very hard on the skills.

Jared Payne Jared Payne, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon have been preparing Ulster for the new season in McFarland's absence. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We’ve been pushed hard physically and we’ve been able to get that done and actually Dan’s timing, obviously you want him in straight away so he can oversee everything but in terms of the timing, a week to prepare for pre-season and a week to prepare for the first game, we’re physically ready to go. Now it’s a nice little change up with him coming in, it will add a nice little mental twist to it.

“It’s just good to have him there and be around and I suppose just get to meet him, and for him to sit down in front of the group for the first time yesterday morning was good and reassuring for everyone.”

With Jared Payne, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon overseeing large parts of Ulster’s preparations for the new campaign, McFarland has taken a back seat this week before rolling out his ideas and vision in time.

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“I think what he’s doing is right,” Best added. “You want him to come in and add value and not take away from what the boys have done all summer and so far he has done that.”

McFarland will get the first chance to run the rule over his squad when Ulster face Wasps in a pre-season friendly at the Ricoh Arena on Friday night, ahead of the visit of last year’s beaten finalists to Ravenhill on the opening weekend.

While the former Scottish assistant won’t have time to put his own stamp on the playing group just yet, Cunningham said the province were happy with their recruitment this summer, particularly the addition of internationals Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy.

Ulster have also brought in Irish-qualified fullback Will Addison from Sale Sharks and out-half Billy Burns from Gloucester, while Wallaby Henry Speight has arrived on a short-term deal.

“We have been really happy,” Cunnigham said. “The recruitment policy has been about guys who will add serious value but also if we can get them as Irish-qualified as well it’s a big bonus.

Bryn Cunningham Bryn Cunningham was speaking at the Pro14 launch. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You add Will Addison to that list as well. He came from Sale where he was captaining them so he provides a lot of leadership as well. He’ll come under the radar a little bit but he’s a quality player and has obviously been involved in some of the Irish camps.

“We expect pretty big things from all of those players and they’re all potential first-team starters for us and that’s a big bonus, a big change from where we were last season.”

The return to fitness of Marcell Coetzee after he missed the whole of last season with a knee injury is like a new signing, Cunningham added.

“He’s fully fit and raring to go for us. We’re excited to unleash him in the next couple of weeks and you add that into Jordi and Marty and we’ve got a different looking pack to last season.

“We’re happy, we’re definitely very happy and we’re happy with our young players coming through. The academy are doing some great work, and that goes into schools and club rugby because you’re always trying to evolve and improve the systems. We’ve still got a lot of work to do but we’re excited about some of those guys coming through.

“We’re starting to get a good balance in the squad and hopefully future-proofing as well.”

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Ryan Bailey

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