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Stockdale 'not far away' as McFarland bids to make Ulster's break work for them
Ulster have waited five weeks for competitive action.

AFTER A FIVE-WEEK wait, Ulster are rearing to go into their third match of 2021 this Friday.

The postponement of European pool fixtures left every team facing unexpected down time. Yet while the clean slate of a schedule allowed a handful of clubs to catch up on previously postponed matches, Ulster had accounted for their allotted fixtures and so were left on standby until now.

Little wonder head coach Dan McFarland jokingly called the break in play a ‘reward’ as he returned to media duty ahead of this week’s Pro14 clash with Glasgow Warriors.

Despite the sizeable gap since January’s loss to Leinster, the game will come too soon for Jacob Stockdale, who is now unlikely to feature in Ireland’s third Six Nations outing. McFarland, though, is hopeful that the knee injury won’t trouble the prolific wing much longer.

“He’s been making really good progress but the bottom line is you don’t bring back players before they’re ready. He’s not too far away.”

On the other wing, McFarland is also hopeful to have Robert Baloucoune back from his awful run on injuries before the end of the season. The Enniskillen man was on the verge of returning to action after the hamstring avulsion he suffered in August, but sustained a high ankle sprain that has set him back again.

Will Addison’s situation remains less clear, such is the difficulty of treating the back.

The versatile Ireland international has not played in almost 13 months due to the complaint, but McFarland retains hope that he will re-join squad training some time soon.

“Will’s injury is obviously a very complicated one. He had surgery on it and is making good progress now, but he hasn’t been out training for a long time. It means that his reintroduction and the process he goes through needs to be a very careful one that is planned precisely and followed through.

“We’re lucky here that we have an excellent medical performance staff, who work very closely with the athletic performance staff at this stage in the return-to-play process.

“As it progresses along over the next couple of months, the rugby department will become involved in that; well, they’re already involved in Will’s skill-work and stuff like that. They’ll be involved in reintegrating him into training as soon as we can get him back.

“We would hope for Will’s sake – he’s obviously desperate to play – that he’ll be back before the end of the season.”

The business end of the campaign starts now for Ulster and McFarland admits that his side will require a string of bonus point wins in the competition’s current shortened format to make the knockout rounds.

If the play-offs do turn out to be beyond them, the training time in preparation  for the run-in could prove a valuable period for McFarland’s wider Ulster project as it has centred around refining basic skills and fundamentals.

Away from the field, it has been a time of difficult decisions as expiring contracts either get left alone or renewed.

“Succession planning,” says McFarland as he lists another bullet point into how he spent his five weeks of ‘down time’.

“A lot of re-contracting to be done in this period. Myself and Bryn (Cunningham, head of operations) spend a lot of time discussing that. Bryn putting together the detail around that.”

As ever, McFarland has also invested time in his own development as a coach, be it directly or simply by continuing his wide range of reading interest.

Certainly, he didn’t allow himself to plug out from the job for very long and his players were given a welcome hit-out by Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad in Abbottstown to ensure they arrive into this week ready for a visit to Glasgow (kick-off Friday 19.35, eir Sport).

“There is no doubt you can lose cohesion in that time, but you can also look on the positives. At the end of 18 games played in under five months, we needed a break. We needed to allow the bodies to regenerate and give us a bit of a different focus.

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“We looked at the fundamentals of our games. It allowed the guys who are fit, a lot of the younger guys, to focus on that, which is great.

“In the middle of that, we had a couple of sections which meant we raised the intensity on a physical level in order to compensate for the lack of games, one of which was the session down in Dublin. Andy kindly invited us down there and that was a terrific day of learning against the best players in Ireland.”

Soon enough, Leone Nakarawa can rank himself among the best players in Ireland. But until then he remains a Glasgow Warrior and could well face off against his future employers this week.

“I’d rather not, to be honest,” McFarland says of the prospect of his pack facing the Fijian.

“Leone is obviously a game-breaker. I know him really well from coaching at Glasgow. It’s exciting on the field when he’s playing but there’s so much more to their game as well.

“We know what Glasgow have been like over the last number of years. They’re a very proud team, they play with a lot of physicality and intensity. They may play a slightly different way under Danny Wilson but none of the intensity has been lost.

“They’ve got some people in that team who bleed for their club; the likes of Peter Horne and Ryan Wilson and Peter Harley… They’re very proud of the club they play for, they’ve bled and sweated for that club over the last number of years.

“That is a pretty intense place to go and have to play. We’re really looking forward to a great challenge.”

They’ve waited long enough.

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