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How I'm learning and improving as Ulster Head Coach: McFarland


By Jonathan Bradley

With two wins from his first two games in the Ulster hotseat, Dan McFarland could be forgiven for thinking this head coaching lark isn't as tough as it has been made out to be.

A career assistant with Connacht, Glasgow and latterly Scotland since the moment he called time on his own playing days, he has worked under figures such as Pat Lam and Gregor Townsend for long enough to know that, despite these promising early returns, there remains plenty of hard work remaining if he is to be the man who restores the province to the status of PRO14 contenders.

"I am learning that job of being head coach in the box, I do not mind saying that," he reflected after his first pair of home games.

"I am used to being a forwards coach for a long time - to have my focus during the matches so focused on what is going on there. As a forwards coach it is around lineouts, scrums, analysing the contact, gathering that information and then feeding it in where necessary to guys on the pitch.

"I am not really a coach that likes to keep pumping information to the players, I see it but they generally feel it. But giving that information to the head coach I am working with at the time if it is so needed and necessary.

"But as a head coach it is different, you are watching a big picture scenario. You are trying to see how the momentum of the game is flowing and ebbing one way or the other, and seeing if there is a bigger picture, tactical things that need to be passed down.

"At the moment I am learning that process and I am making use of the guys' expertise either side of me. I will try and do that and get the information from Dwayne (Peel) and Jared (Payne) who are excellent in their areas at being able to distill that information and then pass it to me.

"I was not great in the first week, I do not believe I was. In the second week I was much better, much calmer, had a much better way to be able to process their information and make decisions and give feedback at half time and stuff like that."

When it comes to keeping calm amidst the chaos provided by 80 minutes of rugby, the nature of his team's wins have hardly helped.

In week one against Scarlets it took a 79th minute penalty from John Cooney to seal the deal. A week on against Edinburgh and the same man left it even later, stroking over the winning kick with the clock over two minutes into the red.

"Never," McFarland laughed when asked if he enjoys seeing his side snatching victory right at the death. "Never, ever. I say that, but we sit here now having watched a team come back having been down on two occasions in both second halves and won the games.

"It is all very well saying I wish it had been this or that but which would we get more out of? Having won reasonably comfortably and drifted in the last 20 minutes or finding out about the fellas in the last 20 minutes and what they are capable of doing when they are put under pressure?

"Early on we asked for that fight for every inch mentality. Did I see that? Yeah, 100 per cent, in those second halves, definitely."

The next challenge comes in the form of the Southern Kings on Sunday, the South African strugglers who have won just once since joining the PRO14 at the start of last season.

Having first visited South Africa for the Students World Cup in 1996, McFarland believes the chance to see another part of the world is to be cherished, especially as the province will be there until next Saturday, by which stage they will also have taken on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

"We are there to do a job and we are very focused on doing that job under tough circumstances against two teams which will provide tough opposition," he said. "The experience of going to South Africa is excellent and is one that is not offered by any other league. I think it is terrific.

"As you grow older you think back to the rugby playing experiences you had and now some of those young lads will be able to go to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth and enjoy these other rugby cultures and rugby experiences and it is only going to add to their development and their experiences."

Ulster have travelled to South Africa with three scrum halves in the touring party yet have used just one in their opening games. With John Cooney's importance to the side unquestioned, he has played every minute so far, with Dave Shanahan twice an unused substitute. While hardly a problem in September, there is a natural risk of leaving yourself exposed should the first-choice nine be called away on Ireland duty this autumn.

McFarland is aware selections are something of a balancing act.

"Ultimately you go in, or I do anyway, with a plan and you're thinking it would be great if we could make these substitutions at this stage," he said.

"Purely on the basis that the guys on the bench are good players, they are going to be fresher and they can provide a boost.

"However there are also the circumstances in the game where you're looking at the guys who are in those positions that you would substitute and seeing how they are going and how the flow of the game is going. Then you make your decisions based on that.

"If you have pivotal positions on the pitch where you have key players who are driving the momentum of the game which is going in your direction, to change that, well that is not a reflection of the people on the bench it is more a reflection of the situation.

"That is something I remember watching from Joe Schmidt when he was managing the teams in successful situations. He would go with the flow on that. Are they playing well? Do we have momentum in the game? Then why would we change that?

"Absolutely it's a balance. But you all understand that 70 minutes in that game last weekend, it was all to play for there, so was I thinking of what happens in November at that stage? No. Maybe earlier in the day, but when it gets to that stage it's 'Is John playing well? Is the momentum with us? Is he key to that momentum? Yes absolutely'. You do not want to change something when it was that tight.

"You always have to anticipate changes coming that might reflect in that, but I did not see that at the weekend. Those guys needed to stay on and the momentum of the game was in our favour."

Southern Kings


Guinness PRO14 Championship

Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Sunday, 1.15pm

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