Dan McFarland is having the time of his life. Two years ago, his winter focus as an assistant to Gregor Townsend was firmly all about teeing up the Scotland squad in time for the 2019 World Cup. Now, as boss man at Ulster, it’s about gelling a curious mix, helping them fulfil their potential and getting the Irish club back to consistently challenging for titles.
It’s a tall order. He inherited a bit of mess at the northern province that lost its direction when David Humphreys surprisingly jumped ship in 2014. Years of subsequent underwhelming effort chipped away at their reputation, but the 47-year-old hasn’t been faring too badly since taking the reins in August 2018.
Qualification for a first Champions Cup quarter-final since Humphreys’ exit was an encouraging start. Now the trick is to build on it and not suffer the second season syndrome that so often affects coaches after an initial first-year bounce.
Ulster remain too easily criticised. For instance, sceptics will point to how their 23-man squad for Saturday’s European showdown with Harlequins contains just eight players reared in the province. McFarland, though, isn’t hung up on origin. After all, he is an Englishman who happily made Connacht his home as a player – via a short stint in France – after big-spending Richmond went kaput all those years ago.
What is way more important to him is growth – how can players get better? His current Ulster set-up certainly has age on its side, the squad facing Quins containing just two players the wrong side of 30. In their corner, too, is McFarland’s mindful approach.
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The rejuvenated John Cooney – axed by Ireland for the World Cup but one of the Champions Cup’s in-form performers – is one fanatic of his coach’s particular way. “He has been brilliant,” he told The Rugby Pod this week.
“He is a coach who studies a lot of psychology – I think he did his masters in the medulla which is kind of your sense of belonging in your brain. It is definitely something he really drives in the squad and you do feel really part of it.”
Simple things go a long way in Belfast, such as the inclusive manner McFarland handles his reserves. “Every single player in the squad has a role to do and that is a really important thing to have in a squad because sometimes people are disappointed they are not getting picked or stuff like that or with injuries,” continued Cooney.
— The Rugby Pod (@TheRugbyPod) December 5, 2019
“He is really good at making everyone feel part of it and we even have a name for the lads who wear the bibs. They are called the Wheelers at the moment but last year they were called Game of Thrones, what are the people who try and attack them? They used to be named after them.
“It makes them feel important. That is the main part of him, how personable he is and as a player that is something I really like, to be able to speak to a coach.”
Imagine that, a player being able to freely speak to a coach? If that sounds odd in a sport that should be all about communication, a few minutes in McFarland’s company illustrates exactly what Cooney is getting at. This grizzled old prop forward genuinely is an approachable guy, not someone to be feared.
Forget reputations. A growth mindset – no matter whether you are new or at a club for years – is the characteristic he treasures most in any player.
“Clearly they have got to have talent. Physical attributes are certainly another thing about it but they have to have a growth mindset,” he said to RugbyPass, giving insight into why he is prospering at the same province that broke Les Kiss, another Test team assistant who felt it was time in 2015 to try his hand at running a club team.
“If you want to be successful in our environment you have got to be prepared to learn. It is one of the main things. There are lots of things. Team man is really important. Being a team person, being willing to give to the team is huge and we have a vast number of people that want to do that and actually enjoy doing that. That is very important, that giving. So it is not just about learning, it’s offering up what you know as well.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 18, 2019
“Where did I get it from? I guess it is just a mindset around learning and growth and enjoying that. That is a huge driver in what you do every day. If you have that you naturally have high expectations of young guys and them coming through and you really want them to succeed.
“If you have that kind of philosophy on life then it turns into decisions in being comfortable in putting them in there. Now, you have got to stand that against how there is always competition so it is not a question of just putting them in there – they have got to earn it and if they earn it, then they will get their opportunities.
“Matchday is probably pretty intense and the pride is often felt more during the week when you come in on a Monday morning and you do a training session, you know you want one of your players to work on a certain aspect and another player to work on another certain aspect.
Kingspan was on fire even as the rain ?? poured down….huge effort, and after lots of happy players, support staff and fans. A big thanks to everyone…. and the guys from @ModernTyres – a blow out on way to ground ? solved before I had to go home ? https://t.co/vi7IztWQuX
— Dan McFarland (@dan10mcfarland) November 23, 2019
“If it works out for them and you can see the things working out for them, you can see that they are pleased it has worked out for them, then you have been part of a process to getting them there and that is a great feeling. It wouldn’t matter if you were a rugby coach or a school teacher or a professor at university, that is what we are about as educationalists.
“We have a young squad. There is a lot of youth in our squad. We promote that idea of improvement and squeezing every drop out of their potential. When they are desperate to get better it creates a really healthy environment and it is a difficult environment sometimes because they are all looking for opportunity and not everybody can get the opportunity to actually play, but they certainly get the opportunity to learn and develop during the week.
“It [the squad] naturally cycles and prior to me coming in in the first year, it did cycle through and a lot of the guys who were coming to the end of their careers moved on and young fellas stepped up. It’s not a question of stopping that, it’s a question of development within the pathway and development within your squads so that you can get some sort of consistency and a little bit of cohesion over a period of time.
“That is pretty important, holding a team together, building a team and holding it together and building cohesiveness is a key factor in success.
“I always wanted to try being a head coach and give it a go, but I was never tripping over myself to do it. I really enjoyed my time in Scotland and I know I could have been really happy if I had stayed there, but there are some times when opportunities come along that just feel right and this was one of them.
“Stepping up to be a head coach is a big step. There is a big difference between being an assistant coach and a head coach. I remember getting a piece of advice at one point that you have got to be ready for that, the situation has got to be right and it just felt right. Ulster is a great club with a lot of potential and it was something that historically I had a connection with and I wanted to be a part of a lot of growing.”
‘Behind the rugby player there is a person and they go through all the different challenges outside of rugby as well’
– Ruan Pienaar tells @heagneyl about how a family tragedy brought him home to Bloemfontein and into @CheetahsRugby https://t.co/nkh8W21WSN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 4, 2019
This growth is especially reflective in Cooney’s rise to prominence where many now want him wearing the Ireland No9 shirt in the 2020 Six Nations. When initially signed by Kiss in 2017, the reaction on the terraces was muted, the inference being he wasn’t fit to lace the boots of the departing favourite, Ruan Pienaar.
Now, the scrum-half is in his pomp at the age of 29 under McFarland and the chant of ‘Cooney’ frequently rings out joyously at the Kingspan. “People want to characterise situations like that as it didn’t work for him here, it didn’t work for him there but then it worked for him here,” said McFarland.
“It is as if someone did something wrong previously but you don’t know the developmental stages of players and all the processes John went through at Leinster in learning skills and in Connacht learning about teamwork and working to play with a team all go to the player that he is now.
“It just so happens that at this stage in his career he is being given the opportunity to shine on a big stage and he has been ready to show that. He has still got a lot to develop, he has still got a lot to learn. He knows that and he is desperate to do that.
“John loves playing rugby. He just came back in (after his World Cup rejection), he trained hard and he loves playing for Ulster. No, it wasn’t difficult.”
Top of their European pool and second to Leinster in their PRO14 conference, the outlook is promising for Ulster at the minute. McFarland, though, doesn’t spend his time preoccupied with tables. “For me, it is the process that we go through of getting better. I know that might sound a bit trite but it is right.
Jack doesn't quite understand the idea of quick-fire questions ??
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) December 6, 2019
“I can’t do anything about how well Harlequins play or how Bath are when they come over or how Clermont are when we go there, we can’t do anything about that. It’s about us being as good as we can and if we are as good as we can be, we give ourselves a good opportunity to get out of our pool. But nothing is given there… it’s about managing our expectations of getting better week on week.
“We are making progress and I am enjoying it, that is the bottom line. If I felt things weren’t going well I wouldn’t be enjoying it. The team stuff, the fact is that everybody is buying into what they wanted to do as a group of players and add a competitive edge to it and we have that week in week out. There is a desperation to learn, which is huge, and that is the biggest motivator coming into work. When people have that that is awesome.”
WATCH: RugbyPass went behind the scenes with the Tonga national team as they prepared for the 2019 World Cup in Japan
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