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'The training is next-level': Henderson loving the hunger instilled in McFarland's Ulster

‘It was coming from the players,” says McFarland of the highly-competitive training structure, “and then I just hammer them with it.”

Ulster forces the late turnover to seal the win.
Ulster forces the late turnover to seal the win.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

ULSTER MADE SURE to bare their teeth in Europe these past two weekends.

Dan McFarland’s men successfully navigated their way through two extremely tricky Pool 3 ties to open the new campaign. Both the away win in Bath and the home win over Clermont were marked by tremendous perseverance from the northern province.

A consistent, relentless effort that one can’t help but feel was a factor missing from some of the more talented teams they have fielded within the last decade.

The iceberg theory comes into play there. Or, if you prefer, the image of the duck with legs frantically pedalling away beneath the surface. Because Dan McFarland’s side are working to ensure that they are not a one-off performer, the type of team you might catch yourself saying ‘on their day they could beat anyone’ about.  They can, but they are striving to make things happen for themselves even when it is not necessarily their day.

It begins with messaging within the team room and with the training that comes after. Ulster are breeding competitors.

So, while they creaked under pressure from a brilliant Clermont side and had to scrap tooth and nail to edge Bath out having clocked up minimal possession stats, there they sit with two wins and confidence rising as they head into the December back-to-backs.

“The character of the boys, as I’ve seen from afar during pre-season and into the season, is phenomenal,” said Iain Henderson as the rain in Ravenhill grew heavier on Friday night.

“It’s been unbelievable coming in (after the World Cup) over the last few weeks to work with them.

“The training is next-level, it’s different to any training I’ve been involved in with Ulster before.

“The character that you’re talking about is built in training.”

The new Ulster captain goes on to laud the work put in by the 23 and the wider squad to help prep the starters for battle. It goes back further than that too. McFarland speaks of a pack mentality and within that is included a sense that the underdogs can have a nip at the alphas now and then.

The pecking order can be challenged.

“The energy and competitiveness in training,” Henderson adds, “not in a vicious sense or a malicious sense, just as in an ‘everyone wants to be better’ sense. Everyone is striving to do the extra things that make the team better.”

Last season’s Pro14 semi-final loss to Glasgow and even their domestic form this season hasn’t helped the northern province to shake off a tag of inconsistency. But in Ireland the European Cup will always be the most worthwhile barometer. McFarland’s side have now played nine times in the Champions Cup. They have lost away to Leinster – and narrowly at that – and away to Racing 92.

“It’s an attitude, a desire. At the end of last season we talked about how much we enjoyed those play-off games. Obviously, they didn’t go our way, but guys really enjoyed being there, really enjoyed the opportunity to play knock-out rugby.

a-general-view-of-epcr-branding Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We realised from years gone by that to get to knock-out rugby you have to do well throughout the whole season, not just wait until the end and try and do that.”

Indeed, the work has continued across McFarland’s two seasons. Or, as the former Connacht and Scotland coach puts it, since before his arrival.

“I think that we have been building on it. The whole thing started the previous summer when the decision was made about what needed to change,” says McFarland.

“Culturally, the whole thing was brewing over the summer and what the coaches did the previous year when I wasn’t around as much and was just in communication with them.

It was coming from the players. The competitiveness is emerging out of the situation and it just takes a little bit from me to gather a bit of that information and say, ‘right if that’s what you want let’s put it in place.’ And then I just hammer them with it.

“‘You asked for it, we are going for it.’ To be honest there has never been anyone who said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

The Ulster boss, now in his second year of his first head coaching role, used his own experience as a player in a struggling Connacht side to shape the constant competition.

“I was an average rugby player, turning up for the last six years (as a player) in Connacht and sitting on the bench and watching younger fellas… a lot of days down there it was wet, raining but I was determined I was going to enjoy myself.

“The only way that I could enjoy myself at training was winning stuff. I didn’t care what I won, I was going to win something.

“That’s the way that we approach it at training. It could be in the gym, it could be in passing, it could be when we are doing live mauling – it doesn’t really matter.

“We are competitive in what we do and I think that comes through, it toughens people up, it makes you learn how to win, it makes you, more importantly, know how to lose and what that feels like. That drive is getting better.”

dan-mcfarland-and-iain-henderson-at-the-post-match-press-conference Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As McFarland has continuously stressed, that ‘fight for every inch’ mentality has been made a minimum standard. He points to an ability to make ‘big plays’ and precision to win games. The cherry on top of the gallons of blood, sweat and tears.

“That is only the start, it is a foundation. I think every sports organisation has to have that as a prerequisite; that’s for me personally.

“It’s then after that what you put on top of that, that develops winning teams or teams that win right at the top level.”

Ulster will go back to polishing the bells and whistles before their clashes with Harlequins. But the dogs in the street can see the fundamentals are sound.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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