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‘Had Dan McFarland coached us, we would have won silverware’

Andrew Trimble reflects on the Ulster glory days and predicts another unforgettable night at Ravenhill tomorrow.

Ulster and Ireland legend Andrew Trimble.
Ulster and Ireland legend Andrew Trimble.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The ghost of Christmas past – when there was nothing Toulouse

THERE IS ALWAYS a moment, a game when the doubts aren’t there, when the things you do are so spectacular that supporters end up remembering it as the Andrew Trimble ‘day’.

21 October 2006 – Ravenhill. Ulster and Toulouse; Toulouse with the stars stitched onto their jerseys, the suntan on their arms, the travelling brass band. No one gives you a chance. Logic, finances, everything points to a humiliation. But you are in the market for a miracle.

Three minutes in, Tommy Bowe – rated touch-and-go all week with a dodgy hamstring – makes a line break, pops his hammer in the process, but still manages to feed you the ball. You score in the corner and there’s bedlam in the stands.

Later that afternoon, you get an even better try – taking the ball around half-way, racing away to the line. It is the day after your 22nd birthday. Ulster win 30-3. If there is one moment you could relive, well this is the one.

“When it’s a European Cup night, when it is Toulouse or Racing or any big French club in town, there is a different atmosphere and level of excitement,” you say. “It really stems from the second you get to training on the Monday of that week. Even the balls are different. It used to be Gilberts that we’d use for the Heineken Cup– they’d come tumbling out of the kit-bag, bouncing this way and that on the ground. We’d race like kids to pick them up.

“So you’re buzzing all week; but then at the back of your mind, there’s also a nervousness that brings even more energy. It’s Toulouse. Those guys are incredible; there is a knowledge that if you don’t turn up, something drastic could happen.

“That fear builds into your performance. Plus, there’s something else. Toulouse, the memories of 1999, the night it all began.”

andrew-trimble-with-valentin-courent-21102006 See you later: Trimble escapes the clutches of Toulouse's Valentin Courent. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Not just for Ulster but for Trimble. He was 15 at the time, packed into the back seat of his old man’s motor, him and his best mate; tickets in their hands, dreams in their heads. The ’99 quarter-final was the night Andy Ward sprinted off midway through the second-half to the maternity ward for the birth of his child; the night Ulster knocked a European giant off their perch. “There wasn’t too much showbiz around Ulster’s approach that night; but the atmosphere in the ground was incredible. That was where I started to fall in love with rugby.”

The ghost of Christmas present – Dan the man

Last time we met, it was bleak. Grey clouds, autumn in Belfast. The forecast for Ulster Rugby, at least in the short term, was just as glum. Trimble spoke of his awareness that of how things had improved since Dan McFarland’s arrival as head coach. But while the atmosphere was better, there were still the results to consider: “a tragic” display against Munster, a home defeat to Connacht.

“Look, I’m glad I am not there,” he said that week, just days after the Connacht loss. “Weeks like this are awful; everybody is looking at each other, everybody going, ‘what are we going to do here? How do we turn it around?’ And there are no easy answers.”

Yet McFarland has found them. Under his watch, Ulster reached the Pro14 final last season and have made it out of the group stages of the Champions Cup in the last two campaigns. Better than any of that, they’ve rediscovered their identity.

“These youngsters Ulster have, they are good,” Trimble said in 2018, pointing out how James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Cian Healy all had their teething troubles, too. “You need time,” he said then, “and it looks as though Dan McFarland is prepared to give the youngsters that. Eventually, that’ll make a difference.”

It has.

Two years on, as those words of his are read back to him, he reflects on what has changed. That Connacht defeat was the last one Ulster suffered in Belfast. “One guy in particular retired soon enough after me – so he had exposure to Dan, and his thoughts are that if we had have had Dan McFarland for any period during our career, we would have won something.

“The team we had in 2012, 2013, 2014, we had little opportunities, we got to the knock-out stages of Europe and the Pro12 and ended up short. If we had Dan during those years, we’d have taken at least one trophy home.

“That’s not a reflection of the coaches we had at the time – they all did incredible jobs. I like how balanced his approach is, like the fact he places an emphasis on Ulster playing their own style, like that he has backed the young fellas. O’Sullivan, Baloucoune, Lyttle, Hume, Moore, Lowry, the Reas, O’Toole – he’s brought them through.

“Remember when Dan played Mike Lowry out of position against Leicester? A European heavyweight but the trust in a young fella was there because Dan knows they are good enough. He’s taken Ulster so far and yes, there is  another step to go – and they need to hold onto Marcell Coetzee to make that step. He has done a very good job.”

michael-lowry-kicks Michael Lowry has kicked on during the McFarland reign. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

Eight games, eight wins this season back that up. Except, hold on a minute. Those wins have come in the Pro14.

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“We desperately, desperately need the South African teams to come into that competition; Edinburgh are down to the bare bones. They picked an academy guy at 10 against Ulster and had 18 guys away on Scotland duty that night. Ulster beat them at a canter, flying to a bonus-point win. 

“But Ulster/Leinster/Munster have created an artificial environment. Yes, they’re winning but you can’t easily go from playing Edinburgh’s academy to facing Toulouse. I still think Ulster will be okay tomorrow – but it’s not just a step-up in quality, it’s a leap.”

The ghost of Christmas future – helping Scotland reach the Euros

Midday in Belfast and the Europa Hotel’s Piano Bar was filled with piped music, the smell of coffee, ladies who do lunch and a winger turned entrepreneur.

There are certain things about Andrew Trimble’s new life that he likes, the fact that when a waitress leaves a complimentary brownie beside his coffee cup, he doesn’t have to push it aside, the knowledge that if he books a holiday between August and June, he won’t be summoned back to Ravenhill because of some injury crisis. “The things normal people do, that’s me now,” he says, unaware that as he was speaking, the quartet of people sitting at the table behind his right shoulder are subconsciously staring at him right through the conversation.

That’s Belfast for you. It may be a city, yet it still has that parish feel, and if Ulster’s record appearances holder and a former Ireland player of the year is sipping an Americano in between talking about why he was happy to move on from his playing career, then he’s going to get an audience.

“As a professional rugby player, you’re institutionalised,” he said. “You’re told what to do, when to train, what weights to lift, what to eat, when to rest. Your life is like an extension of school. You turn up same time, same place, every day — a tracksuit is your uniform, coaches are your teachers. There’s a schedule and you stick to it. So once you come away from that, you’re a bit lost.”

Not any more even if his new workplace has no similarities to his old one. To start with, post lockdown, he works from home whereas at Ravenhill, a dressing room, shared with 50 work colleagues, was his office.

Whilst at home, he has helped develop a technology app that aims to remove the haphazard nature of how team sports run. “From my experience as a player, not much is streamlined and all that clutter can make its way into the mindset of an athlete,” Trimble says. “If your preparation is cluttered, your performance can be too. There were times when I got to match day and thought, ‘am I ready?’ It shouldn’t be like that. So that’s what I’m seeking to change.”

To cut to the chase, the change is simple. Everything relevant to the team – training schedules, physio appointments, meet-up times – are now on a live app, whereas before they were lost in WhatsApp groups amid the banter and the jokes; on white boards in the medical room; on Google calendars and in email threads. “This makes it easier for players,” Trimble says. 

There’s nothing easy about start-ups, though. In fact, they have a habit of turning into finish ups within a year of their birth but Kairos – Trimble’s company – is already being used by, among others, Ulster Rugby, Down’s Gaelic footballers, Stoke City, Cambridge United and the Scottish national football team.

serbia-v-scotland-uefa-euro-2020-play-offs-final-rajko-mitic-stadium Scotland used Trimble's app en route to Euro qualification. Source: PA

He launched his new business in February, lockdown arrived in March. “The perfect storm,” says Trimble.

It actually helped. During a normal season, teams go week to week, or in England’s lower leagues, from Saturday to Tuesday to Saturday. Normally, because of the intensity of their schedule,there is no time to draw up a long-term vision. “But because of the lockdown, they could look at the bigger picture and assess the way they go about things,” says Trimble.

The Scots bought in and by the time they were beating Serbia in a penalty shoot-out to qualify for the Euros, Trimble was channel hopping, a duty to his client competing with a patriotic call to see how Northern Ireland’s play-off with Slovakia unfolded. 

But tonight he will have eyes for just one match. The boys from France – Kolbe, Dupont, N’tmack – are back in town, heavily backed in the bookies, bidding to leave their mark on Belfast. “You’ve got to get on the front foot against teams like that,” says Trimble, “got to go with an attitude that you have nothing to lose.”

 

* for more information about Kairos go to their website https://kairostech.io/

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Garry Doyle

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