'He was a devastating ball-carrier and having played in the backs, had good skills'

Ulster’s Dan Soper was instrumental in David McCann making the move from centre to the back row.

DAN SOPER HAS long had the inside track on some of the most exciting young players currently breaking into Ulster’s senior squad.

Soper is the skills and kicking coach on Dan McFarland’s staff in the northern province but his reputation was built in the club and schools game, notably as he guided the Royal Belfast Academical Institution to three consecutive Ulster Schools Senior Cups.

Among the many talented players he worked with during that time were current Ulster players Rob Lyttle, Michael Lowry, James Hume, and David McCann.

“It was evident they had the potential to do great things,” says Soper. 

james-hume-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-michael-lowry Michael Lowry and James Hume were coached by Dan Soper at RBAI. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Lowry, Hume, and Lyttle have been working hard to establish themselves for Ulster in recent seasons, but back row McCann is the youngest of the quartet and only made his senior debut off the bench in last weekend’s win over Benetton.

Anyone who has watched the Ireland U20s over the last two years will have seen 6ft 4ins McCann’s potential in the back row and Soper understood his promise even earlier than that.

Indeed, the Ulster skills coach played a key role in 20-year-old McCann being a back row player in the first place.

“Dave was an interesting one,” says Soper. “He played in the centre right through until Lower Sixth and then we had a bit of a discussion that because of James Hume being in the centre, he probably wasn’t going to make the team come Cup time unless he considered a positional change, which he jumped at.

“So he hasn’t been playing in the forwards particularly long but he moved into the forwards, won a Schools Cup, played for the Irish Schools, and here he is now.

“He was always a devastating ball-carrier and having played in the backs, he had good skills. I could see him as a rangy, back-row forward who could do a lot of damage on the edge. He’s a good carrier, he’s got good footwork.

“He also had a big collision in him at school. There was no question in my mind over whether he would shy away from the physical stuff as a forward. He’s done really well. He’s a smart guy, he’s done a lot of learning and he’s made a good fist of it.”

david-mccann McCann playing for the Ireland U20s earlier this year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There was one dynamic show of McCann’s ability on the ball last weekend as he received a tip-on pass from Marcell Coetzee, accelerated inside a Benetton defender, then stepped another for a big gain of metres for Ulster.

Soper says the hard work has only really started for these young Ulstermen, underlining that “they’re very aware that getting there is really tough, but staying there and continuing to develop is the key thing.”

McCann is very much in the mould of what McFarland is looking for from Ulster forwards these days – mobile and quick enough to play at a high tempo, aggressive in contact, and with the ball-handling skills to catch and pass comfortably. 

Ulster’s play in the McFarland era has featured strong use of tip-on, tip-in, and pullback passes from the forwards as his team has looked to play with width and ball movement.

Soper has been the man behind the vast growth of the skills levels in Ulster’s forwards in recent years, with McFarland making him one of his first additions upon joining the province as head coach in 2018.

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New Zealand native Soper, who has been in Ireland since 1998, has relished taking on the job and explains what the next level of the journey is.

“It’s been a really fun challenge that Dan set when we started a couple of years ago,” says Soper. “We wanted forwards to pass the ball and we’ve had some good days and some not-so-good days.

dan-soper Dan Soper is a key man in the Ulster set-up. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Where we’re at is that we probably had a period where we did a lot of passing for the sake of passing and it wasn’t always the best decision.

“Sometimes not passing is the best decision but having the ability to pass and playing against teams who know you have that ability to pass is part of it. We’re sort of trying to move that to making really good, strong decisions on the ball.

“Yeah, tip if it’s on, play out the back if it’s on, but if it’s not, there’s nothing wrong with carrying really well.

“If you have that ability to tip, then maybe you soften the defence. So we’re trying to get smarter about those things. We’re not necessarily trying to be any smarter about how we do it, it’s just about making good decisions on the ball.

“The great thing is that the players, the forwards particularly, love their skills practice. They just love it. You throw a group of four of them a ball in the gym, give them a wee catch-pass game, and they look like kids again.

“It’s an easy thing to work on with them, but that decision-making is still the big thing we’re trying to press on at the moment.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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