Magners League: McLaughlin at ease as Ulster drive forward
With coach Brian McLaughlin now on the home furlongs of his second season as Ulster’s head coach, he is more at ease with himself and the job than at any stage since taking up the reins in June 2009.
That’s ironic, given that the weight of expectation is heavier than it has ever been.
His steadily-growing list of firsts is impressive: first coach since Harry Williams in 1999 to guide Ulster into the last eight of the Heineken Cup, first to mastermind an Ulster victory over Premiership opponents on English soil — not once, but twice in successive seasons — and, most recently, first to oversee an Ulster win at Parc y Scarlets plus having just become the first in five years to have carved out a home and away double over Cardiff Blues who came to Ravenhill last Friday night occupying second spot in the Magners League table and went home with their tails between their legs having been beaten 32-13.
While the seven-match run-in — which starts with tonight’s home date against bottom-of-the-pile Aironi — certainly suggests that his goal of a top four finish is achievable, typically McLaughlin urges caution.
“I suppose when you look at it on paper it’s not bad, but when you sit down and actually think about it and remember how competitive the Magners League is you know that they’re all going to be tough and they’re all going to be difficult matches to win,” he warns.
A teacher by profession, it’s logical to ask McLaughlin to mark his team and himself out of 10. “I wouldn’t give us a mark; instead I’d say that we’re making positive progress, rolling in the right direction. The marks are given at the end of the season, not at this stage.
“We haven’t won anything yet. Yes, we’re ticking over nicely and moving in the right direction, but we’ll only get a 10 out of 10 when we have a trophy on the cabinet,” he reveals.
Winning is everything to him. Asked if he believes Ulster are building to a peak at just the right moment he replies: “I’ll tell you better after Friday night because this game with Aironi is a potential banana skin for us.
“If we go into it taking things lightly or a wee bit complacent then Aironi are a good enough side to smack us in the teeth. That’s something we’ve got to be very, very wary of.
“Last Friday night (against Cardiff) was excellent; we played a smashing game from first whistle to last and we put a new benchmark down. But what I have been trying to emphasise all week is that having done that, now we have to match it in every game from now until the end of the season.”
He lauds the whole squad, not just the 15 players who start and the eight bench-warmers. Everybody, he |insists, plays a part and without their involvement Ulster could not function.
“It’s very difficult for the guys in the squad who aren’t involved in matches,” he acknowledges. “But to be totally fair to them — and they deserve great credit for this — those guys have been outstanding.
“They work every bit as hard as the boys who are playing week by week and we wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for those squad members who aren’t getting games as often as they’d like at this stage. It’s exceptionally difficult to keep people happy, but the plain fact of the matter is that a winning squad is a happy squad.
“And we’re looking all the time to give people opportunities as I think the introduction of some of our young players this season has proved.”
Man-management is a skill he has honed and fine-tuned in the course of his career.
“I’ve learnt an awful lot over the past 20 years in my teaching career. As a Head of Department I had to work with other members of staff and I suppose that was the start of it.
“From a coaching point of view I’m quite willing to hold my hand up and say that at the beginning of my coaching career I was absolutely dreadful at it. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone very far beyond that at the moment — that’s something you can ask the players.”
And the job’s high public profile?
“I don’t find the Press conferences — and having to stand up in front of people — easy. I’m not an outstanding orator or anything like it,” he says. “That part of the job is one of my weaknesses, but as you go through life you discover what those are and you try to improve them.”
Certainly he has improved Ulster — and five more points tonight will make his post-match Press call another one to savour.