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The man with a plan - McFarland wants to build successful legacy at Ulster

The new head coach sat down with the media for the first time in his role yesterday.

McFarland pictured at Kingspan Stadium on Tuesday.
McFarland pictured at Kingspan Stadium on Tuesday.
Image: Matt Mackey/INPHO

IT’S SOMETHING SMALL, but as Dan McFarland greets you, you get the sense he cares.

The eye contact. The firm shake of a hand. He asks your name, then repeats it back to you as if committing it to memory. He’s making a genuine effort to remember who you are, not giving a casual greeting.

First impressions are so important, and the well-read Englishman knows that. In his first role as the head of a coaching ticket, he needs to make an impression, be it a good first one on the media or a general one in terms of the team he will create.

Ulster’s new head coach is no stranger to Belfast, the former prop having visited first with Richmond (as an unused sub) then on several occasions with Connacht — both as a player and a coach — and Glasgow, just as a coach.

Indeed, his family roots are from Belfast, as he explains: “My Grandfather on my father’s side was from born and brought up here. He studied at Queen’s University and then left to go and work in the UK.

“I have fond memories of him. I remember when I rang my dad and told him I was taking the job he said my Granddad would be tickled pink.

“(My Granddad) played for Queen’s when he was in Belfast but there’s a lot of stuff about my him that my Dad hasn’t told me,” he adds with a twinge of emotion. “He died when I was 10.”

His impending arrival dominated the headlines surrounding the province all summer, and the moving isn’t done quite yet as his wife is still to join him in Belfast after seeing kids Danielle and Thomas off to university in Scotland.

The ‘war’ between the IRFU and the SRU for McFarland’s services was public and messy. The IRFU wanted him in Ulster before the start of the new season, the SRU wanted substantial compensation to buy out his nine-month notice period and, for a long time, neither would concede to the other.

Eventually, however, a deal was reached. The former prop arrived in Belfast last week and has now settled into his new job, even if it means he hasn’t been able to do much else.

“My experience of Belfast is the Kingspan (Stadium) and the mattress that is on the floor in my house,” he laughs. “I will admit to going to the cinema on Sunday but that’s the extent of my experience of the city so far.”

Dan McFarland Source: Matthew Bunn/INPHO

The decision to leave Murrayfield, and his three-year stint as assistant coach to Gregor Townsend, was not an easy one by any stretch of the imagination.

The two formed a formidable coaching duo, making the Warriors one of the top sides in the Pro14 and then turning Scotland into Six Nations contenders, all the while playing possibly the most attractive rugby in the northern hemisphere.

But all good things must come to an end. McFarland had bigger aspirations than serving as Townsend’s number two, and when Ulster came calling with a contract ready to be signed, his mind was made up.

“Those decisions are never black and white okay, they always look like that you say you don’t want one thing and you do want another,” he admits.

“I really enjoyed my time in Scotland. Really enjoyed it. I’ve got a lot of friends there, but ultimately when a province like Ulster speak to you and say ‘we’d like you to be our head coach’, that’s special.

“Was I ready to do it? Yeah, I believe the time was right and that decision was now to become a head coach and that ultimately was a good decision. I know that in my gut.

“I always wanted to be a head coach. I got a good piece of advice earlier on in my career that I shouldn’t be tripping over myself. You have to be ready, the opportunity had to be right, and those two things married up in this situation.”

Now he faces probably his toughest task yet — turning around an Ulster side that has been shorn short of some of its top talent, reeling from off-field matters last season and unsure of its identity.

Not a bad job to take as your first head coach role. Then again, he does have the CV to back up the belief he’s the right man for it.

Ten years as a player with Stade Francais, Connacht then Richmond. Nine years as assistant coach at Connacht — with stints with the Ireland U20s, Emerging Ireland and the Ireland Wolfhounds — then two years with Glasgow and a further year at Scotland as assistant coach.

But perhaps the most impressive thing that you hear about McFarland is his attention to detail, his love of the intricate details of the game as well as his passion for the psychology behind sportspeople, as his Twitter feed will soon tell you.

Now he’ll have to take the lead as he tries to turn around Ulster’s fortunes and take them from last-gasp Champions Cup qualifiers back to the promised land of silverware — and the 46-year-old has already pinpointed what he needs to see from his new squad.

“Looking in from the outside, I see a successful legacy,” he says. “So what is the first thing I do? I look for clues what is it that brought the success in the first place, where are they. Draw those out.

“The first thing I remember when I came up here to play was the competitive spirit, that fight for every inch mentality that you came upon on the pitch. Nothing was given for free. When I look at the players now that’s the first thing I’m looking for.

“Before the detail and everything else we have to lay down that marker and show that kind of spirit and giving them the mechanisms to do that. It’s not just a question of asking for it; it’s providing them with the opportunities to do it, to be competitive.”

Dan McFarland Source: Ulster Rugby/John Dickson/INPHO

That leads us nicely into the finer details — goals and expectations — and as someone who likes to imprint those finer details onto his squad, it’s something that practically every Ulster fan has wanted to ask since his arrival.

McFarland almost sighs at the inevitable question, before saying: “I am not going to call for anything. When you are supporters and fans part of the fun of it is making a choice on what you expect. You get to chose that, you get to look. It is not for me to tell people what to expect.

“My job is to get the expectations right inside and that is to expect really good standards day to day. On the outside, aim high and be disappointed or aim low and be really excited. That’s something for everybody to choose.”

Even so, there have to be some goals that he’s setting for his side surely? Coming in as a new coach, surely there’s a barometer for success in his first year in charge, or at least something to measure progression by?

“This is a slow process, for me coming in my feet are here and I am not going to look up too far, I am going to take one step at a time as a coach and find out what we have here,” he says, certainly with his feet very firmly on the ground.

“There are some very talented players, there are some really talented young players here. Do I believe we have the kind of players that are going to play the kind of rugby I want in the long run? We will not do it right away, it will be something which is fed in gradually and there are foundations to put in place first, but yes I do.

“I am very positive about that and, in fact, if I did not think that, I would not have taken the job.

“Am I going to limit us on what we can do? Absolutely not, because I have been burned on that sort of thing before.

“Am I going to set expectations for them? No, that would silly. The expectations in terms of achievements will be in our day to day processes.

“At the beginning of the day I will know where the players stand, I will know where the support staff stand. Do we achieve that at the end of the day? If we get those expectations right we will be able to take one step at a time and get where we are going.”

As someone who has been involved with an Irish province before, perhaps that is something that will be one of the most important things he brings to the role — an understanding of what it is to play for your province.

Sure, he’s an Oxfordshire man, but McFarland played out west long enough to know how much the fans love and relate to their local heroes when they take to the field.

It’s something Ulster have lacked over the past few years, and they themselves would be the first to admit that. But that could very easily be about to change.

Dan McFarland and Peter Bracken charge past Jon Dawson Source: INPHO

McFarland claims: “A big part of my job, bringing players through is definitely a big part of it, that’s the lifeblood of any club that is entwined with its community.

“It’s different from a club that buys in players so that they can sit silverware on trophy cabinets. There’s more to it than that, the people of Ulster recognise that this club is woven into the fabric of the community, that’s how it should be.

“The purpose is much bigger than just silverware. It’s something that every sports club aims for, obviously, but there’s more to it than that.

“Getting people playing, we love the game, you guys all love rugby, we want more people playing it, for young people to have role models from our team, we want them to be able to aspire to play for Ulster, to play for Ireland and it’s our duty to put the processes in place for them to do it.”

As he gets up to leave there are a few subsidiary questions, and a couple of humorous anecdotes about infamous Ulster fullback Simon Mason, who was a very nervous goal-kicker despite his accuracy and was also terrified of Richmond back row Ben Clarke.

McFarland mentioned he’s an American football fan during one of his answers. He’s a Green Bay Packers fan, much to the delight of another local journalist who is of the same disposition, but he also has a soft spot for the New England Patriots.

“I love (Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick’s mentality,” he says with a grin, that focus on the psychological side of the game coming through once more.

First impressions are so important. If his impression on the Ulster team is just as good as his was on the media, then Ulster may just be alright. 

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