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Dublin: 8°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

McFarland taking leaf from Schmidt's attention to detail to raise Ulster standards

Scrum-half John Cooney says Ulster are feeling the benefit of a trickle down effect after Ireland’s success.

THESE DAYS IN rugby, going into games with only a notion of what the opposition will bring is a thing of the past.

Teams are analysed to the nth degree, every play dissected and broken down into its individual components, with game strategies and tactical analysis done based around the video review.

By the time both sides take to the pitch at the weekend, there are no secrets between them. Everything is in the open. But for Ulster this season, head coach Dan McFarland has even taken that a step further than they’d done previously.

The Englishman has come in with his own style, his own systems and now his own approach on video review on a Monday morning, which has seen the team go even more in-depth than usual.

Already McFarland has received a reputation as being a coach with an attention to detail, somebody who has a tendency to break down every play harking back to his time with Connacht and Glasgow.

Dan McFarland with Joe Schmidt Schmidt at Ulster training in August. Source: Ulster Rugby/John Dickson/INPHO

That has driven standards within the northern province which sees them this week looking to potentially secure a place in the knockouts of the Heineken Champions Cup and in the mix in a tight Conference B in the Guinness PRO14.

“It’s more that it trickles back from Ireland as well,” says scrum-half John Cooney, an integral part of McFarland’s system with Ulster and now regular call-up in Joe Schmidt’s national squads.

“As more and more individuals go off with them I think they get a taste for that and they bring that back, whereas after November going so well I think a few of the Irish players sat down and said ‘this is what we need to bring back to Ulster’.

“It’s no coincidence that Ireland are up there as two in the world and with Dan, Dan loves that and he’s close to Joe and talks to him a lot. He is mad into attention to detail and as in the leadership group, or the older lads, if you’re seen not to know what you’re meant to do, he will have a go at you.

“So it’s important people are seen to be doing the work they’re doing. Same with the young players, it’s trickling through the whole squad now.”

Ahead of this weekend it perhaps won’t be quite so pertinent with Ulster fairly familiar with Saturday’s opponents Racing 92, in particular two of their more prominent stars in that back line. But for Cooney, the delight hasn’t been in the preparation but instead with the amount of buy-in from the squad.

“You nearly know what step people have, left or right, what side they kick-off, and we have those snippets all in our computers at the moment,” adds Cooney.

“So it is important when you get to the game in that Finn Russell might dummy late, stuff like that. Even the people running the second team (know), so they even understand.

“I noticed that Johnny Stewart was looking at computers at what Antonie Claassen does for them, so it’s a huge squad effort. It’s great to see people that might not be picked week-in, week-out, looking at all their players. That is pretty good to see.”

It’s been a staple of Ulster’s success this season. As they head into the next two games which will define their European fate, there’s both a familiarity and a fresh feeling.

Will Addison and John Cooney with Rhys Patchell Cooney and Will Addison move in on Rhys Patchell. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Like last year, when they defeated La Rochelle in Belfast and then lost to Wasps in Coventry to end their European involvement, they came into the two games off the back of losses to Connacht and Leinster.

Similarly, this year they come into the doubleheader with Racing and the Leicester Tigers off those back-to-back interpro losses. But, unlike last year, the mood is fairly positive.

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Young players, such as Rob Lyttle, James Hume, Matty Dalton and Greg Jones, all got their chances as the rebuild of the Ulster squad continues, and while the European standings aren’t too far off last year, this time around their chances seem much more realistic.

And this week, with Kyle McCall, Angus Kernohan and Mike Lowry added to the injury list, it’ll take another full squad effort to down the French giants.

“It’s hugely important for us as we’ve been targeting this game for the last few weeks and we understand the importance of this game at home,” says Cooney, who didn’t feature in last week’s defeat to Leinster.

John Cooney Cooney, backdropped by Henry Speight. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Where we are sitting in this group is hugely important and we know we always seem to get these big performances at home. Last season against La Rochelle we had a huge performance against a big pack, and it will be pretty similar to this game this year.

“We had those two big back-to-back games with Scarlets where we picked up those 10 points and that was hugely important for us. It gave us that momentum we needed to put it back in our own hands.

“It’s a position you want to be in. We would love a home quarter-final so we have to try and get this win in this game, and whatever happens, happens.”

And the key to victory at the weekend? According to Cooney, it’s sticking to the plan that they’ve had throughout this season, which he insists will get them over the line.

“I think it is where we have a bit of an opportunity, because it’s easier said than done where a lot of teams think that if they move these big French teams around that they’re going to dominate them and win,” says the 28-year-old.

“A lot of the time that doesn’t work because either they don’t stick to the game-plan or they get a bit of a shock at how good some of these French teams are.

“I think it’s important we look after the ball and we don’t let them get those turnover opportunities. That’s where you grind them down, whereas if some teams assume that once they move the ball to the width they’re going to beat these French teams.

“I think it’s important we implement our game-plan and stick to it.”

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