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McFarland appointment an important step as Ulster look to rebuild
The ex-Connacht forwards coach is expected to be in place for pre-season.

IT’S BEEN A miserable season for Ulster and even if they might point out that they won just one game less than Munster in the Pro14 regular season, it’s hard to argue against the notion that they have underachieved.

Of course, losing their star out-half and one of their most creative backs in unforeseen circumstances made everything more difficult and contributed centrally to the doom and gloom around the province.

Dan McFarland James Crombie / INPHO McFarland is likely to join Ulster for the start of pre-season. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Ulster are hoping that things are now moving on from the Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding saga, with optimism among the playing squad beginning to show.

Even if Rory Best’s enthusiastic words felt a little bit forced after his side gave up a strong half-time lead away to Munster to draw last weekend, his positivity was certainly a notable contrast to recent weeks and months.

Confirmation of the appointment of Dan McFarland as the province’s next head coach is likely to add to that vibe, with the current Scotland assistant coach set to link up with the province this summer.

The SRU, understandably aggrieved at losing a key member of their national team coaching staff so close to the World Cup, put out a statement yesterday indicating that McFarland would need to serve a nine-month notice period before leaving in mid-January of next year.

But in the same statement, there was mention of Worcester Warriors head coach Carl Hogg joining them for the summer tour of Canada, the US and Argentina to coach the forwards alongside McFarland.

The expectation is that McFarland will complete that tour with Scotland and then join Ulster in July, allowing him to take up the reins at the start of pre-season.

Scotland obviously have to move on and the likelihood is that they will have secured a permanent replacement for McFarland – Hogg or someone else – by that stage.

Paying two coaches to do exactly the same job is never a good idea, so it would be a major surprise if McFarland isn’t in-situ at Ulster this summer, readying himself for the biggest challenge of his coaching career yet.

That said, Ulster may have to pay up themselves to ensure that is the case.

Pat Lam with Dan McFarland before the match Billy Stickland / INPHO McFarland left Connacht to join Glasgow. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The former loosehead prop - who played for Richmond and Stade Français before signing for Connacht and spending six seasons in their front row – has been an assistant coach up until this point of his career.

He did have spells as the head coach of Emerging Ireland and the Ireland Wolfhounds, but the sustained pressure of a full-time gig with Ulster will be a different ball game.

McFarland guided Connacht’s forwards for nine years from 2006 onwards, before Gregor Townsend lured him to Glasgow Warriors for a change of scene and with the potential for international involvement in the future.

It panned out that way when Townsend brought McFarland into the Scotland fold last year and the Scots have had some fine results since, beating the Wallabies, running the All Blacks extremely close, and upsetting England during this season’s Six Nations.

McFarland is highly-regarded as a superb technical coach by many players who have worked with him, with his leadership of the maul, lineout, scrum and ruck areas all standing out.

He is a popular character but his demands can also be fierce, a fine blend for someone who now has to push Ulster back towards competing for trophies.

Taking on the top job is, of course, a step up for McFarland but the 46-year-old’s CV and references bode well for his ability to handle the expectation.

The fact that the IRFU, usually meaning David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt in these cases, were heavily involved in the process of appointing him is another good sign of what McFarland brings – a deep understanding of the Irish rugby landscape.

Good relationships with the union are important for any provincial head coach, and McFarland is well-regarded by Schmidt and Nucifora. Another green tick.

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Dan McFarland 2/8/2014 Cathal Noonan / INPHO McFarland is well-regarded as a technical coach. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Ulster’s pack has often limited them this season and McFarland has a big job on his hands in turning them into a feared collective. The likes of captain Rory Best, Ireland lock Iain Henderson, the returning Marcell Coetzee and a crop of promising youngsters including Nick Timoney mean there is plenty to work with.

That said, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ulster recruit one or two more players ahead of next season, with their out-half situation of chief concern.

The province hasn’t quite given up hope on Joey Carbery or Ross Byrne changing their minds, having initially said they were happy at Leinster, but whatever the solution it seems obvious that Ulster need a relatively experienced extra body at out-half.

There is recruitment to come off the pitch too, with Ulster and McFarland now diving into the process of finding two further assistant coaches for him to work with.

It still looks likely that Dwayne Peel, Aaron Dundon and Niall Malone will remain on board into next season, but ensuring a high-class defensive specialist is part of the coaching staff is a key priority.

Jared Payne has been filling the defence coach role in recent times and with major doubts around him resuming his playing career, he is one possibility.

McFarland and Ulster have lots of work to do but there are signs of green shoots for the province as they plan for the future.

Their hope is that Champions Cup qualification is secured for next season, allowing McFarland to get an instant taste for head coaching at the top level of European club rugby.

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