Rogan Thompson/INPHO Dan McFarland has led Ulster's improvement since 2018.
'Can I visualise myself here in the long term? I can, yes' - Ulster boss McFarland
The Ulster head coach’s contract is due to expire at the end of the season.

THIS CONTRACT NEGOTIATING period will be like no other for clubs across the rugby world given the problems that Covid-19 poses both financially and logistically, and club directors and agents will have their work cut out for them.

Only a few weeks ago, IRFU high performance director David Nucifora confirmed they haven’t even begun discussing contracts with players yet, with that process likely beginning in the New Year, while clubs across Europe have understandably been slow to do business.

No club could have planned in advance for the impact that a pandemic would have and, as a result, most will be feeling the pinch when it comes to assembling squads for 2021/22. Budgets have been slashed and, more than likely, player numbers will be too.

Ulster are not excused from this. At least nine players are on expiring contracts, with another 18 on contracts of undisclosed lengths, and while Iain Henderson’s future should be negotiated in Dublin, operations director Bryn Cunningham has his hands full when it comes to balancing the books.

But, perhaps more pressingly, they need to tie down their head coach beyond 2021.

It’s undeniable that the arrival of Dan McFarland at Kingspan Stadium has been a positive for the province. Performances are, on the whole, much improved from those that came before under Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes, and the results have followed in the form of back-to-back trips to the European knockouts and a Guinness Pro14 final.

To lose him only part of the way into what is surely a long-term vision for this Ulster squad would be a hammer blow for the northern province, but fortunately, it doesn’t sound like the Englishman is planning on going anywhere any time soon.

“That’s ongoing,” he said of contract negotiations with the province. “Can I visualise myself here in the long term? Certainly, I can, yes. That situation is ongoing.”

There is guaranteed to be some upheaval behind the scenes in Belfast, however, as one person who won’t be sticking around is assistant coach Dwayne Peel, who has already accepted an approach to return to Wales as senior assistant coach with Cardiff Blues.

dan-mcfarland Dan Sheridan / INPHO McFarland was previously the Scotland forwards coach. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Peel works with the backs and Ulster’s attack, and the results have also been positive with the former British and Irish Lions scrum-half in place. Under Peel, Ulster are top try-scorers in the Pro14 this season, and it was a perfectly executed training ground move that saw Ian Madigan scorch in for their second try against Toulouse on Friday night.

Similarly to retaining McFarland and as many of their current players as possible, replacing Peel will require a rejig of the budget, making an internal appointment all the more likely.

Current skills guru Dan Soper, supremely popular within the playing staff and earning rave reviews for his work, appears to be the leading candidate to be given more responsibility, but fellow assistant coach Jared Payne is also keen to move away from focusing on defence and instead turn his eye to attack.

An external appointment isn’t out of the question, either. Former Ulster head coach Neil Doak, now with Georgia, has been spoken about in dispatches, while, as unlikely as a move for one of the pair would be, the possibility of approaching one of Mike Prendergast or Felix Jones to bring them back into the Irish system will have at least been mentioned.

“Number one, do what’s best for the organisation going forward. That may sound silly but that’s where you start from,” said McFarland.

“That means that we have to make sure that our eyes are open to all the options. We’ll have candidates within the organisation, I’m certain there will be candidates from outside the organisation in the search for somebody to do that role.

“At the end of it, we’ll make sure we come out with the very best option that’s there. We have a lot of exciting backs here and we owe it to them and the organisation to make sure they’re coached really well. I can promise you we’ll be doing that.”

While that all bodes well for the future, there are pressing concerns in the present, namely a Heineken Champions Cup campaign that needs salvaged as quickly as possible after last week’s loss at the hands of Toulouse.

dwayne-peel-during-the-warm-up Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dwayne Peel is leaving Ulster at the end of the season. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Concerns that Ulster’s Pro14 form wouldn’t translate over to Europe proved premature as McFarland’s side were impressive in defeat at Kingspan Stadium, playing some excellent rugby but they were effectively outdone by two outstanding individual performances from Cheslin Kolbe and Antoine Dupont.

And while they can hold their heads up high in how they performed, that does not translate to points on the board. A home defeat in Europe in any normal season would be detrimental – in a Covid-19 shortened pool stage it’s nigh on catastrophic. Already, just one game in, Ulster have hit must-win territory.

Facing a Gloucester side that seem to have little interest in making a splash in the Champions Cup this season should prove the perfect tonic this Saturday, but the harsh reality is that with a trip to the Stade Ernest-Wallon still to come, Ulster are up against it.

But for those thinking Ulster’s pride at losing both their unbeaten record this season and their 25-game winning streak at Kingspan Stadium last week has provoked an angry reaction within the squad, they would be mistaken. Rather, the prevailing emotion was frustration, followed by positivity.

“Our pride does not rest on results. Our pride rests on who we believe we are and whether we demonstrate who we are,” explains McFarland.

“I can’t control how good an opposition are, I can’t control how the variables that are not under my control as in any one week it could be refereeing decisions, it could be weather, it could be this that or the other. All we can control is what we put out on the pitch. I was proud of that.

“That doesn’t take anything away from the disappointment of defeat, they are two separate issues. I’d have been a lot more disappointed if I hadn’t been able to look at the performance and say I don’t think we did as well as we could have done there.

“You do lose games. It’s not inevitable because there are teams that go through seasons without losing games but there are not many of them. This block of seven games is as difficult as you could get. So there was always the chance of losing those games and there’s always the chance that we’ll lose more.

“The process remains the same, we’ll go out and be the best we can possibly be on the pitch at Gloucester at Kingsholm. If it’s good enough to win we’ll be really, really happy. If it’s not and we play to a very high standard, we’ll be extremely disappointed but we’ll move and try to adapt.”

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