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How Ulstermen are making their coaching mark in professional rugby, even if not with their home province

By Jonathan Bradley

They say you can never please all of the people all of the time, with coaching appointments offering a case in point.

Earlier this week, Ulster confirmed Scotland's forwards specialist Dan McFarland as the man to replace Jono Gibbes at the head of the province's ticket, with the appointment prompting something of an oddly mixed reaction on social media.

A well thought of coach both in Ireland and Scotland, the recent returns he has forced out of Gregor Townsend's pack at Test level, a continuation of a promising trend begun with Connacht and Glasgow, surely indicate a cause for cautious optimism around what he can do with Ulster's forwards.

While chief among the online misgivings was the 46-year-old's projected start date - his notice period runs until January 2019 but it seems likely he'll be in Belfast long before that, hopefully in time for pre-season - there remained those who would have preferred a local candidate.

The argument goes that Ulster last won silverware with an Ulsterman at the helm, Mark McCall in 2006, following on from the European Cup success of Harry Williams in 1999.

Indeed, even the journey to the Heineken Cup final of 2012 came under Brian McLaughlin.

But, while Ulster haven't hit the same heights since, nationality shouldn't be seen as a precursor to success, after all it's not as if Ireland's three Six Nations titles over the past five years have been tarnished any by the coach being Joe Schmidt rather than Joe Smith.

And while there could be cause for concern if the province wasn't producing any coaching talent, it just happens that it's all succeeding elsewhere.

After his acrimonious final months in Ulster, McCall rebuilt his career, first at Castres and now at Saracens, where the London outfit have accumulated the past two Champions Cups and two of the past three English titles.

David Humphreys, who left his position as Director of Rugby at Ulster in 2014 for the same role at Gloucester, may soon join him on the honour roll of European winners.

The man who captained Ulster to their maiden victory on the continent will lead Gloucester into the Challenge Cup final in Bilbao next weekend, with his side's defence still masterminded by Larne native and former Ulster centre Jonny Bell.

Ulster's former head coach and attack guru Neil Doak will soon be in the Premiership too where he'll be on the staff at Worcester Warriors, while Jeremy Davidson got a gig at Bordeaux off the back of sterling work on a shoestring budget at Aurillac, and is currently on the radar of Brive for their head coaching position.

Allen Clarke, who left Ulster at the end of last season, has recently been promoted to head coach of Ospreys and feels there is something to be said for broadening your coaching horizons far from home.

The former hooker faced a similar scenario in his playing career, spending the majority of the 1990s in Northampton where he learned from the likes of Lions legend Ian McGeechan before returning in time for his home side's European glory.

"In terms of being a good head coach, it is about having that willingness to go out of your environment to gain experience elsewhere," said Clarke after it was announced that his interim role succeeding Steve Tandy would become permanent.

"Through doing that, it opens your eyes to different ways of learning and coaching, but it also helps you gain respect as someone who hasn't always been in their home environment all of their life.

"A lot of my coaching and rugby was at Ulster, but equally I worked with Ireland, I've also coached in England.

"I did my time in New Zealand and Australia to see what was good over there, and if you speak to most people who are sent on those fact-finding trips they'll come back with a similar message which is there are no secrets in the game.

"It's about the environment you create and how you conduct yourself as a coach and the standards you set.

"I left Ulster because I wanted to challenge myself. I sat down with Les Kiss to speak about my future and we looked at a recontracting situation.

"But for me it was about stepping out of my home environment to challenge myself abroad with a view to becoming a head coach."

Ulster have already had a look at Clarke's Ospreys, an 8-0 victory last month, but it is one of their own who stands in the way of their hopes of Champions Cup qualification.

Barring unlikely circumstances, the Swansea side will be at Kingspan Stadium the weekend after next, the winner taking a place in Europe's top tier.

Whatever happens though, Clarke's early months in his new job will have been a success, turning around the fortunes of a side who were battling to avoid the Conference A basement.

Throwing in English-born Ulsterman Justin Fitzpatrick, in charge of the Houston Sabercats, Clarke will be one of five natives heading up pro programmes elsewhere. In an ideal world, one of them would be back in Belfast, but until then out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind.

There's nothing wrong with watching their journey and enjoying their successes.

Belfast Telegraph

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