Dan McFarland's time with Ulster is over. Ben Brady/INPHO

More change on the way for Ulster after McFarland's exit

A group of senior players could leave the province this summer.

IN THE END, news of Dan McFarland’s departure from Ulster came as no great shock, even if it is unusual for an Irish province to make a change mid-season.

The 51-year-old has parted ways with the province in the wake of a run of three troubling defeats but the writing had been on the wall for some time.

Current Ireland U20 boss Richie Murphy will take over in Ulster for the rest of the season once the Six Nations is over, while Ulster must also consider who their long-term head coach is going to be. Murphy might seal the job by working wonders in the coming months but Ulster and the IRFU have already been assessing other candidates.

There is more change afoot for Ulster on the personnel front amid financial challenges. The province recorded a loss of more than £900,000 for the 2022/23 season, much of it due to the debacle around their home game against La Rochelle being played behind closed doors in Dublin last winter due to a frozen pitch in Belfast. It’s also worth noting that Ulster’s long-running sponsorship deal with Kingspan – which has included naming rights for Ravenhill – will end next year, so securing a successor on that front will be crucial business.

For now, Ulster have to make cuts to their budget.

Out-half Billy Burns is set to join Munster at the end of the season. While he hasn’t convinced every Ulster fan of his worth, the Ireland international has been their first-choice out-half since 2018, as well as one of their leaders, and will be a loss.

As things stand, Ulster aren’t set to bring in a replacement for Burns and it seems that 22-year-old scrum-half Nathan Doak could play at out-half more often next season, competing with 24-year-old Jake Flannery for the number 10 shirt.

Another senior player would could leave this summer is Will Addison, who has had a cruel lack of luck with injuries. His class has been obvious whenever he has been fully fit since joining in 2018, while he has been a tactical leader behind the scenes even when sidelined. He is being strongly linked with a return to the Premiership.

Powerful back row Dave Ewers could also move to England, with the 33-year-old struggling to make a consistent impact amid Ulster’s struggles having only joined from Exeter last summer.

The hugely experienced Luke Marshall is another back whose current contract is due to expire at the end of the season. The 32-year-old is an Ulster legend but James Hume has earned first-choice status in the midfield alongside Stuart McCloskey and become more of a leader in recent times.

billy-burns Billy Burns is set for a move to Munster. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

It seems likely that there will be changes in Ulster’s front row stocks, with once-capped Ireland international Eric O’Sullivan and James French potentially leaving when their deals expire at the end of the season.

Other players who haven’t been used regularly, such as fullback Shea O’Brien and back row Greg Jones, could be among the crop of departing players.

Much of this change would be happening had McFarland stayed on, with Ulster sensing that their squad needed a refresh this summer, but the province’s supporters will be hoping for new additions to go along with an increase in opportunities for some of the young homegrown talent within the province.

At present, it seems that Ulster’s reduced budget may not stretch to recruiting more than a couple of new players from outside the province, so they seem likely to operate with a smaller squad next season.

There is also a view within Ulster that some of their more experienced, high-profile players have drastically lost form. It would be easy to put that all down to the head coach but Ulster will be hoping to see lots of their individuals accepting responsibility to deliver more for the remainder of this season and beyond. McFarland would surely argue that some of his key men haven’t been hitting previous standards.

Whatever about the changes ahead in Ulster, McFarland is now out of the picture. His contract was due to run until 2025 so his departure is likely to have involved a payout, giving him time to consider his next move.

The Ulster job was his first permanent role as the boss and he left as the province’s longest-serving head coach of the professional era. It all started so well but the last couple of seasons have been unhappy.

Indeed, there were murmurings at the end of last season that change could be made in Ulster over the summer of 2023. It seemed that the atmosphere between head coach and playing group was in a rocky place and it’s understood that Ulster and the IRFU considered a change at that stage.

However, things were seemingly smoothed over ahead of the current season and word from within the group early in the campaign was that there had been an improvement in that atmosphere.

david-mccann-dejected-after-the-game It has been a miserable season for Ulster. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

A home win over Munster in November suggested that Ulster were moving in a positive direction again but things unravelled thereafter, with Ulster’s performances increasingly worrying even if they won away to Leinster on New Year’s Day. 

The heavy Champions Cup loss at home to Toulouse in January was hugely disappointing, while a hammering at the hands of Harlequins a week later was shambolic. Last weekend’s insipid performance in a loss away to the Ospreys was the final straw.

It is a sad end to McFarland’s near six-year tenure. He joined in 2018 when Ulster were at a major low ebb, having limped into the Champions Cup via a play-off and with the rancour caused by the Belfast rape trial surrounding the province.

Former Connacht and Scotland assistant coach McFarland made a strong impact, guiding Ulster into the Pro14 semi-finals in his first season before reaching the Champions Cup quarter-finals and Pro14 final in his second campaign. 

Leinster beat them in both of those games but with exciting homegrown talents like Rob Baloucoune, Mike Lowry, and Hume coming to the fore, and the squad enjoying McFarland’s direct approach, Ulster were earning a new-found status as the second-best province in Irish rugby.

They agonisingly missed out on a home URC final in 2022 when the Stormers grabbed a late winning score in the semi-final in Cape Town. Making it even harder to accept was the fact that Leinster also lost their semi, meaning Ulster wouldn’t have had to play them in the decider in Belfast.

One has to wonder what might have happened had Ulster secured that home final. It was a huge chance to end their 18-year trophy drought.

McFarland had already signed a new two-year deal with the province to run until the summer of 2025. All seemed to be going well but that near miss proved to be something of a turning point.

Hugely popular assistant coach Jared Payne left that summer after four years working alongside McFarland. He had been running Ulster’s defence but was also a big influence on many of the younger players. Payne opted to leave for the defence coach role with Clermont, not an obvious move up in the coaching world. After a year in France, he joined Scarlets as attack coach.

Payne was immediately missed in Ulser, particularly as another influential assistant, attack specialist Dwayne Peel, had left in the summer of 2021. Assistants are always crucial for any head coach and Ulster seemed to be weaker without Payne and Peel.

jared-payne Jared Payne was highly rated by Ulster's players. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

McFarland’s coaching team this season has been made up of attack coach Dan Soper, who now takes interim charge for a few weeks before Murphy arrives.

Defence coach Jonny Bell is contracted until 2025, as is forwards coach Roddy Grant, while skills coach Craig Newby’s deal is due to expire this summer.

Ulster did finish second in the URC table last season but their quarter-final defeat at home to Connacht was hugely disappointing. As concerningly, their Champions Cup form was poor. McFarland’s men limped into the Round of 16 after one win in four pool games and that continued this season with their pool-stage defeats to Bath, Toulouse, and Quins meaning they missed out on the knock-out stages.

In the URC, meanwhile, Ulster are in a battle to retain their place in the top eight, which is needed to ensure Champions Cup qualification for next season. Clearly, Ulster and the IRFU believed that this slide was irreversible and change needed to be made. McFarland’s time in charge had come to an end.

Murphy will take over until the end of the season once his commitments with the Ireland U20s have concluded in just over three weeks. In the meantime, Soper will lead the team for the URC clash at home against the Dragons on 2 March.

Murphy, who has been impressive as U20s boss, will be straight in at the deep end. Ulster are off on a two-game tour of South Africa as soon as he arrives, with games against the Sharks and Stormers crucial to their play-off hopes.

They have a Challenge Cup Round of 16 visit to French club Montpellier in early April, with that second-tier competition offering a chance to possibly grab some silverware.

Murphy is another man stepping into his first permanent head coaching role in the senior game. He has craved a chance like this in one of the top jobs in Irish rugby and will hope to earn a full-time role.

But Ulster and the IRFU will be considering other options and many excellent coaches will likely be attracted to the job. The financial situation could be challenging but other clubs are far worse off. Ulster have an excellent stadium, some obvious playing quality in their squad, exciting young talent coming through, and excellent supporters who are in dire need of an exciting new project.

CEO Jonny Petrie and influential head of rugby operations Bryn Cunningham won’t need to be told how important the next six months are going to be. The IRFU understands that too, particularly given how few Ulster players are vying for Ireland places at present.

While they have fallen into the doldrums again this season, there is clear potential for Ulster to rise again. They’ll be hoping that the changes happening now and in the coming months send them back in the right direction.

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