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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 26 November 2020
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McFarland's investment in youth has already paid off for Ulster

Six wins from six so far this season is indicative of the progress Ulster have made under Dan McFarland. They face Scarlets this evening.

Michael Lowry is one of Ulster's many impressive graduates.
Michael Lowry is one of Ulster's many impressive graduates.
Image: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

THE LOW POINT is a subject of debate. Rory Best reckoned it was Cardiff, a suitably chastening defeat coming smack bang in the middle of their 2017/18 campaign.

For others it arrived before then, on 23 December, 2017 to be precise, a Connacht-inflicted humiliation. Jono Gibbes, then their forwards coach, wasn’t even in Galway that day and if anything summed up Ulster in 2017/18, this was it. You just never knew when or if they would turn up.

Good enough to do a number on La Rochelle, they were bad enough to lose to Zebre. Six wins from seven to start their season preceded a run of five defeats out of seven between January and March, culminating in a crisis meeting following that 35-17 defeat in the Arms Park. “Don’t look for excuses, don’t look for someone else to blame,” Best told the squad. “We sort this out ourselves.”

They had little choice. They were a club lacking leadership.

You can’t say that now. Finalists in the Pro14 last season, they are flying it this term, six wins out of six.

And so much of their revival stems from the man in charge of it. It’s worth noting that the initial news about Dan McFarland’s appointment two-and-a-half years ago was greeted with shrugs rather than cheers on the terraces, the absence of head coaching experience on his CV not quite tallying with Ulster’s claim they’d sourced the world for the best possible candidate.

dan-mcfarland-before-the-game McFarland's arrival has sparked a revival at Ulster. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

Now, it’s already clear they pulled off a coup getting him from Scotland.

Under McFarland, Ulster’s maul has been revived, their scrum improved. The instillation of a never-give-up spirit, evidenced by the turnaround in last season’s Pro14 semi-final is the most notable difference. Yet something else has also changed.

Not too long ago, Ulster were regarded as a good team but a weak squad. You just can’t say that anymore because so far this season, McFarland has used 40 players, experimenting with selections, yet continuing to chalk up the wins. Not only are they six from six, but four of those victories have come with bonus-points attached.

Better yet, it’s happening with home-produced talent – Marcus Rea, Ethan McIlroy and Stewart Moore all making their first starts for Ulster this year. Year after year, they’re bringing talent through – Jacob Stockdale initially, then Michael Lowry, then Robert Balacoune, then James Hume.

On top of everything else, they’ve also signed well – Ian Madigan, Alby Mathewson, Jordi Murphy. A team that was mid-table in 2018 has been completely turned around.

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“If you play someone like Ethan (McIlroy) in a backline that has Luke Marshall in there, Craig Gilroy on the other wing, Mikey Lowry who has played a lot for us and really understands the system, Alby (Mathewson) at scrum-half, Ian Madigan coming off the bench, it’s much easier in that situation,” McFarland said.

“But the bottom line is that there’s a confidence in those players anyway.”

His belief has been backed up by results and while Scarlets this evening (kick-off 7.35pm, eir Sport) will offer a considerably tougher test than Zebre, there is enough to suggest that six out of six can turn into seven out of seven – even if the Welsh side did impress on their trip to Galway last weekend.

“It is always hard to win away from home, especially when you are playing the Irish teams, hopefully we can have some better weather and play some good rugby out there,” said 21-year-old Scarlets wing, Ryan Conbeer.

“It has been a bit of a tough start to the season, but we have got some good wins under our belt, we just need to keep progressing, working on the things we need to keep working on and just get better as a squad.”

ULSTER
(15-9) Michael Lowry, Matt Faddes, Luke Marshall, Stewart Moore, Rob Lyttle, Bill Johnston, John Cooney;

(1-8) Eric O’Sullivan, John Andrew, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor (Capt.), Kieran Treadwell, Matty Rea, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements: Adam McBurney, Kyle McCall, Tom O’Toole, David O’Connor, Jordi Murphy, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Craig Gilroy.

SCARLETS

15. Angus O’Brien; 14. Ryan Conbeer, 13. Steff Hughes (capt), 12. Paul Asquith, 11. Steff Evans; 10. Dan Jones, 9. Dane Blacker; 1. Rob Evans, 2. Taylor Davies, 3. Javan Sebastian, 4. Sam Lousi, 5. Danny Drake, 6. Ed Kennedy, 7. Jac Morgan, 8. Sione Kalamafoni.

Reps: 16. Daf Hughes, 17. Phil Price, 18. Werner Kruger, 19. Jac Price, 20. Uzair Cassiem, 21. Will Homer, 22. Sam Costelow, 23. Tyler Morgan.

Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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