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'It struck a chord': Dan McFarland on the Ulster mantra underpinning development

Ulster v Harlequins, Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Three, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm

Game plan: Dan McFarland wants every player to buy into his approach
Game plan: Dan McFarland wants every player to buy into his approach
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

With culture a huge point of emphasis in his overhaul of Ulster Rugby, head coach Dan McFarland has acknowledged that any potential new signings must show a willingness to buy into his ethos.

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Facing the first of the festive back-to-backs against Harlequins in Belfast on Saturday, after wins over Bath and Clermont, the northern province are well placed to emulate last year's Heineken Cup quarter-final spot.

Coming after a four-season hiatus from the sharp end of continental competition, the former Scotland and Glasgow forwards coach, who arrived 15 months ago, has been rightly praised for the speed with which he has kick-started a reversal of fortunes, with his oft-repeated "fight for every inch" mantra seemingly a foundational building block of the progress.

"If you're going to stand for something it's got to be relevant to the organisation," he reflected.

"One of the most enjoyable bits of starting out here was finding out what that most important question was. I don't know if I've got it right but so far it's struck a chord."

As it must with any incoming talent. Jordi Murphy, Marty Moore and Will Addison all played a big part in McFarland's first season, even if injuries have currently sidelined the more recent headline signings of Jack McGrath and Sam Carter.

"One of the biggest things in recruitment is around growth mindset," McFarland said.

"A cornerstone of what we do is squeeze every drop here, so if you have an individual in the environment that doesn't feel that they can get any better or doesn't want to get any better, it really jars. There is a premium on training and the way the guys train and the amount of development that they do, whether it's within the gym and skill work.

"If you don't fit with that, it's no good. In terms of recruiting people who work here, it hopefully provides them with an environment where they can excel."

The recent history of Ulster as a professional entity is littered with more than a few recruits who failed to live up to the billing, with McFarland admitting that it's not "an exact science."

"It's difficult," he noted. "But it's not a massive world and normally there's someone who knows somebody, and if you do your due diligence on that, then obviously in conversations with them you get a sense of where they're at and what they're thinking.

"Recruitment is not an exact science whatever happens. Somebody can be brilliant in one environment, but then (in the new environment) you didn't and they didn't realise that the two things didn't quite fit together and it might not gel.

"But you can mitigate against that to a certain extent."

In the more immediate future, McFarland is keen to temper the expectation surrounding a first two from two start to Europe in six years.

With a trip to the fearsome Marcel-Michelin to play Clermont still to come, it's hard to overstate the importance of Saturday's game against Harlequins and the return fixture six days later.

"We've won the first two games in Europe and people are saying 'you're doing well' but, for me, we need to be performing better if we're to push on," he added.

"We've got a big one this week. Harlequins will offer big propositions for us in terms of breaking down their defence, which is excellent, and they have one of the best defensive coaches around in Paul Gustard.

"Breaking them down is going to be really difficult."

Meanwhile, former Ulster star Charles Piutau has signed a new two-year contract at Bristol Bears, extending the world class back's stay at Ashton Gate until 2022.

The 28-year-old former New Zealand All Black scored six tries in 11 Gallagher Premiership appearances last season.

Bristol rugby director Pat Lam said: "Charles is an outstanding team man and a world-class talent. He has the ability to create opportunities out of nothing for the team, so we are delighted that he has committed to the Bears and our vision.

"He brings an invaluable attacking threat, but also a calm head and a wealth of experience."

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