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'He knows his own mind and I admire that about him' - McFarland on Flannery ahead of European showdown

The pair played together at Connacht at opposite ends of their respective careers.

ULSTER HEAD COACH Dan McFarland admits he’s been impressed by the work that former team-mate Jerry Flannery has been doing with Harlequins ahead of their Challenge Cup last-16 tie on Sunday.

xxx Dan McFarland and Jerry Flannery. Source: Inpho.

The pair played together at Connacht at opposite ends of their respective careers — McFarland as his was coming to an end and Flannery’s just as it was getting started — before the eventual Ireland and British and Irish Lions hooker would go on to forge an exceptional career at Munster.

But now, 18 years on from the last time the pair shared a dressing room at the Sportsground, they will meet on conflicting coaching staffs as Ulster travel to the Twickenham Stoop for their first ever match in the Challenge Cup.

It promises to be one of the ties of the second-tier competition as arguably the two best teams in the knockouts clash in London, and one of the key battles will come up front, where McFarland and Flannery deploy their talents.

While McFarland’s coaching remit is broader as head coach, Flannery has been able to specialise as lineout coach at the Stoop and has added some much needed structure to their pack effort, turning them into one of the most dangerous sides from the set-piece.

And this week, the two former team-mates will test their respective regimes against each other, and while there will no doubt be some bragging rights on the line, McFarland is highly complimentary of Flannery’s success with Quins.

“Their set-piece has been excellent in the Premiership. Jerry does a brilliant job over there, their line-out has been exceptional, worked really well. Their maul defence has been really good as well,” praised the Ulster head coach.

“Adam Jones is a fantastic scrum coach, too, they have a really destructive scrum. It’ll be a big ask for us.

“I know Jerry well, I played with him at Connacht and he’d be a good friend of mine. I’ve always respected him as a coach who is really hungry to learn. He knows his own mind and I admire that about him.

“Any time I get a chance to talk rugby with him, it’s an exhausting process because you feel like he’s squeezing every drop of information out of you – getting a question in sideways to get any information out of him is bloody difficult!”

So, that probably rules out any midweek phone calls between the former team-mates to catch up, right?

“No,” grins McFarland in confirmation. “He’s pretty short on the old text messages anyway! It’ll have to wait for pre-game when I’ll try and psych him out a bit!”

It’s something of a blast from the past for McFarland in another regard, too, given he is a former Richmond man – a team not known for being all that conciliatory when they faced local rivals Harlequins when both were in the top tier.

The former prop played during an era when Quins boasted a front row that included Keith Wood and Jason Leonard, and he recalls a few less than mild-mannered meetings when it came to scrum time. But, at the end of the day, there was always that underlying respect at the heart of the rivalry.

“It was a huge rivalry. Back in those days Richmond would have had the upper hand,” recalls McFarland.

“The interesting thing was John Kingston, my ex-coach at Richmond who really got me into rugby and gave me my first opportunity to step into the world of paid sport, he was a Harlequins man. That’s where he grew up and ended up as head coach at Richmond.

“There’s an added spice to it that I was aware of. They’re only a mile down the road, so you always had that rivalry. I admire clubs that, when you look at them, you know what they’re about, they have a character. We’ve described it as a DNA and I’d say that’s probably right. Harlequins are one of those, they’re a club that has to be admired.”

the-ulster-team-after-the-game The Ulster team. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That admiration will only last until kick-off on Sunday night when Ulster begin what many see as being their best opportunity in recent years to end their 16-year trophy drought, and that starts by booking a quarter-final place against either Northampton Saints or Dragons by beating Harlequins on their own turf.

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The challenge is not one Ulster will take lightly – since seeing Paul Gustard leave the set-up in late January, the English side have won six from nine and have soared into the play-off positions in fourth, while they lost by one and two points to title favourites Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears respectively.

Arguably, however, the biggest challenge McFarland has to deal with first is selecting his own team. While Ireland stars Rob Herring, Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson — who is in line to shake off a knock picked up against England to start — return, there are some real question marks on the team sheet this week.

With Billy Burns struggling to make it due to a groin injury picked up on Ireland duty, Michael Lowry has put his hand up for selection at fly-half in recent weeks. Sean Reidy seems likely to join Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney in the back row at blindside flanker, however David McCann has quietly impressed.

It’s a good headache for McFarland to have, and he acknowledges that this perhaps isn’t a discussion he would have had when he took over at Ulster a few years ago. But now that he is having it, he wants that to be a persistent headache at Kingspan Stadium.

“I think there’d be a significant difference (from two years ago). I think that has played out this season, I think you can see that,” he concedes.

“When you consider the amount of front-line players we’ve been unfortunate to have injured this season – we’ve had seven front-liners. That’s nearly 50% of your team. That makes a considerable impact, and yet we’ve performed to a decent level, and the guys that have stepped into those positions have really stepped up and shown progress. That’s made us into a team that, without some of the big names, you would still expect us to win. That’s a good place to be.

“It doesn’t make winning the big games any easier, but are we in a better place than we were two years ago? Undoubtedly. Absolutely undoubtedly.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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