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Dublin: -2°C Saturday 17 April 2021

McFarland embraces diversity to forge Ulster bond

Another false dawn, or the beginning of something special in Belfast?

Ulster coach Dan McFarland
Ulster coach Dan McFarland

IT IS ALWAYS a danger to get excited about Ulster rugby.

No Ulster supporter needs to be reminded about how often a promising season has fizzled out into nothing. A province that frequently offers so much hope have made a habit of dishing out the heartbreak in the second half of the season, so it would be easy for supporters to treat this latest bright start to a new campaign with caution.

Yet this time, there is a sneaking feeling that something is different. It is evident in the way the team have been playing, producing big moments to win big games. Just look at John Cooney’s gorgeous solo try against Clermont last week. Or Jacob Stockdale’s wonderful intercept to prevent a certain try with the last play of the game against Bath a week previously. They ooze confidence.

Then you have the attitude of the players themselves.

Captain Iain Henderson has spoken of a renewed level of intensity at training, the likes of which he claims to have never experienced in over seven seasons at the club. 

“The training is next-level, it’s different to any training I’ve been involved in with Ulster before,” Henderson said following the 18-13 defeat of Clermont last Friday.

Quite the statement.

“That’s how it’s been since I arrived,” says Dan McFarland, the Ulster head coach. 

“That’s how we train, we obviously went though a process at the beginning of building that intensity into training but that’s how it is. We want it to be competitive, we want it to be difficult, to put them under stress [with] the way we train, so the guys love that. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a really good way to train.”

There are plenty of key individuals in the Ulster ranks who could be forgiven for walking around feeling sorry for themselves in recent weeks. Henderson and Jacob Stockdale are dealing with the disappointment of Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exit. Jordi Murphy missed out on the initial squad, was called in to replace Jack Conan and then popped a rib in his first game. John Cooney wished he had that fortune, as he didn’t even make the plane. 

Yet here they are, two wins from two in Europe and second only to Leinster in Conference B of the Guinness Pro14. McFarland plays down his own role in the feel-good factor which is evident within the playing group, but he has clearly created an environment where players are relishing their time with the province, desperate to put on the white jersey and show what they can do each weekend.

“When people turn up for work, they want to enjoy themselves don’t they?” McFarland continues. 

“So it’s about providing the environment where they can enjoy themselves. This goes for anybody these days, gone are the days when you clock in at 8am and clock out at 5pm and just pick up a pay cheque on Friday. People want meaning in their lives. That’s no different in rugby, so one of the big parts of meaning for me is an individual wanting to get better, and that goes for me, not just the players. You want to come in in the morning and when you go home in the evening, you want to feel ‘you know what, I’ve achieved something, I’m a little bit better or I’ve helped somebody else get a little bit better. That could be a player, it could be me. So providing that…or helping to foster that kind of day in people’s eyes is great.”

PEYE 261119KB2  0072a Kingspan competition winners enjoyed a coaching masterclass with Ulster Rugby senior players Jordi Murphy, Will Addison and Louis Ludik, as well Head Coach Dan McFarland in Kingspan stadium on Tuesday.

There are interesting stories dotted all around the Ulster dressing room. It is easy to scoff at the amount of players who have arrived from rival provinces, but another view would be that McFarland has created an environment which entices players to Ulster. Murphy and Jack McGrath both gave up an almost guaranteed chance of winning medals at Leinster because they backed themselves to play in enough big games, and play their part in enough big wins, at Ulster to force themselves into the Ireland team. Marcel Coetzee could potentially have been a World Cup winner with South Africa, but instead he’s bulldozing defences on wet winter weekends in Antrim. Addison arrived from Sale last year. Matt Faddes from Super Rugby side Highlanders over the summer. The list goes on.

Then you have a player like Cooney, who failed to make any real impact at Connacht after falling by the wayside at Leinster, but is now flourishing in Belfast.

It is not that long ago that the idea of such a diverse mix of backgrounds in the Ulster dressing room would have almost been unimaginable. Politics and religion still play their role in the development of the game in the province. Just this year, Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock, are believed to have become the first team from a Catholic grammar school to play in the Ulster Schools’ Cup. 

In this regard the province have led the way, showing they have no problem in welcoming players from any background. 

McFarland, speaking at a Kingspan event in Belfast yesterday, is asked how a team can form an identity when the players in the squad come from so many different pockets of the world.

“That is a big question,” he smiles.

“Diversity is really important and it’s great, as if we’re all cut from the same cloth it becomes boring very quickly.

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“With that it brings ideas. For me the way you do it is understand context. The first thing I would have done when I started here is look at the context. Speak to people and get answers and information from as many people as possible. What do they stand for? What is going right? What isn’t going right? Tie it all together and put it into two or three streams that are important.

“It’s [about] listening and trying to understand just what is the most important question at that point and then steering it. The cultural thing is the here and now and not long-term. In two years’ time it’s not good changing that.

“If you’re going to stand for something you’ve got to stand for something and it’s got to be relevant to the organisation. One of the most enjoyable bits of starting out here was finding out what that most important question was. I don’t know if I’ve got it right but so far it’s struck a chord.”

It would be easy to overlook McFarland’s role in all this. His route to the Kingspan Stadium is as interesting as any of the players who lace their boots up at the weekend.
Back when the game turned professional, McFarland was studying Greek and Latin with a view to becoming a teacher. In one hand he held his study books, in the other a muddy pair of boots. 

“I started teacher training when I was playing at Morley in Leeds, that would have been 1995 and the game went professional in ’96. The money I was getting from Morley in a brown envelope in my boots turned into a white envelope that I got over the bar so then I joined Richmond and I had to make a decision whether I wanted to carry on and be a teacher or become a professional rugby player, so the education stuff was always there, I really enjoyed it. I could easily have become a teacher and I’d have been very happy.”

He chose sport over academia, and currently his students are flourishing.

Yet the real tests arrive in the second semester. Get past back-to-back games against Harlequins in December, and McFarland will struggle to suppress the excitement.

Watch this space.


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