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'It's never about him': How Dan Soper won over the Ulster squad and guided Banbridge and RBAI to unheralded success

 

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Key relationship: Ulster’s John Cooney celebrates with skills coach Dan Soper

Key relationship: Ulster’s John Cooney celebrates with skills coach Dan Soper

�INPHO/Bryan Keane

Dan Soper guided RBAI to three consecutive Schools' Cup titles.

Dan Soper guided RBAI to three consecutive Schools' Cup titles.

Key relationship: Ulster’s John Cooney celebrates with skills coach Dan Soper

Among the yarns in Rory Best's recently released autobiography is the story of how his elder brother Mark made a bet with a Kiwi friend of the family in 2001 that Ireland were on the verge of beating the All Blacks.

The wager was drawn up in an impromptu contract. Should the occasion of a maiden victory over the sport’s most dominant side arrive, the middle Best brother would be flown to New Zealand for a holiday at the expense of his rugby-loving pal.

In hindsight it’s hard to judge which outcome was then more unlikely — that when the victory belatedly came to pass some 15 years later, that Mark Best’s younger brother, at the time only a schoolboy, would be the victorious captain, or that the man out of pocket would have been living in Ireland for more than a decade and on the radar of Ulster Rugby for his coaching nous.

The man in question, Dan Soper, has since joined the ranks underneath Dan McFarland and for the better part of two years now has been enjoying universal praise for his work with the senior side as skills coach.

The undoubted star of the province’s now in-limbo season, John Cooney, previously described him as “basically my counsellor” thanks to his help with the mental wear and tear of high-pressure goal-kicking, while a more unheralded star of the campaign, Luke Marshall, believes he returned from a lengthy ACL injury last year a better player thanks to Soper’s behind-the-scenes work during the long hours of rehabilitation.

His route to this point can be described as circuitous, yet when it comes to an itinerant rugby life success has been a relevant constant.

Born in Alexandra, a town of fewer than 5,000 natives, he first arrived in Ireland in 1998, featuring in the back-line during Banbridge’s first ever season in the All-Ireland League.

A fine player in his own right, he would enjoy a spell at Padova, during a season in which the Italian side would take on Toulouse, Bath and Swansea in the Heineken Cup, before returning to these shores.

Teaching at Wallace High and a player-coach at Ballynahinch during their all-conquering rise to become the most successful side of the time in Ulster, it was back at Banbridge and in the school game where he would really make his name in coaching, guiding the club to two promotions while his Ballyclare High side reached a first Schools’ Cup final in almost four decades.

"He coaches as he played," says former Ireland and Ulster star Simon Best, who lived with Soper when he first arrived in Banbridge and assisted him after he became coach.

"Whenever he came to Banbridge, we'd have been a very forward-orientated team, essentially playing ten-man rugby. In those days, Dan was a running full-back so there was probably a bit of self-interest in him encouraging us to play a bit more. He probably just wanted to see the ball.

"But when you talk about his impact on the club, you're really looking at that second spell after he came back from 'Hinch.

"In those days we had the distinction of never having been relegated and never having been promoted within the All-Ireland League. We'd got in and just stayed where we are.

"With Dan as a coach, he was working with a group of players who by and large were used to the level they were at and took that same group to two promotions.

"He does it through guidance. He empowers people and by and large gets them to take responsibility.

"That's how he gets the best out of people."

At RBAI, he turned St Patrick's Day into an annual coronation, matching the achievement of fierce rivals Methody by winning back-to-back-to-back Schools’ Cup titles between 2015 and 2017. Blessed with a terrific team, Soper’s charges from the time are now making an impact in the professional game.

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Dan Soper guided RBAI to three consecutive Schools' Cup titles.

Dan Soper guided RBAI to three consecutive Schools' Cup titles.

Dan Soper guided RBAI to three consecutive Schools' Cup titles.

 

For a school whose only real Ulster regular of more recent years was Roger Wilson, now James Hume and Mike Lowry are two of the most exciting youngsters in the senior panel while Callum Reid has been a regular in the 'A' side alongside David McCann who captained the Irish Under-20s to their recent Triple Crown.

Recalling those early days at the school now, Lowry remembers his first impression being of a man who lives and breathes rugby.

“He has that sort of different touch on things,” says the out-half who was entrusted to start as a fifth year. “His skills are unbelievable himself so it makes it easier for him to teach and he knows what he’s talking about. He loves rugby. He lives and breathes it.

“But the thing is, it’s never about him. He wants what’s best for you, it’s never what’s best for him.”

He would join the Ulster set-up a year after the first of his Inst players. When Dan McFarland described the kind of coach he wanted to round out his ticket in the summer of 2018, it was operations manager Bryn Cunningham who thought of Soper.  He quickly won over the wider squad, with Stuart McCloskey among those who have been quick to praise his impact.

“You see a lot of lads interviewed talking about Sopes and I’d beat that same drum,” he said. “He just has a good energy about him. He maybe doesn’t have to do or say a great deal but he puffs you up.

“Earlier this season, I dislocated a finger, wrecked my thumb and my wrist was really sore. I couldn’t catch a ball in training.

“You’re almost laughing because you don’t know what else to do but you’re annoyed. He came up and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re a great player, it’s all there’.

“He’s not doing the reviews, he’s not getting into guys when they do wrong, but he’s there to help when you need help. He doesn’t have to do an awful lot to have a big influence on the squad.”

Soper laughed when McCloskey’s description of a “good energy” was put to him.

“Maybe you should ask my wife and kids if I have the same positive energy at home,” he said. “I think the environment we have at the moment, it makes you pretty positive.

“You are working with highly motivated players that want to get better, they are always seeking out, looking to do extras.

“I feel I am in a pretty awesome job that is pretty rewarding. What is there not to be positive about?

"I think as support staff we have a responsibility as well to set a standard too and I guess in some ways through the background I have had in schools that was even more a responsibility, when you are working with young people. It's just become part of who I am and how I go about doing things.

“A lot of what I try and base it around is to be a good person and treat people well and be a good role model in that sense.”

As a coach, he feels he’s evolving every day.

“We have a good relationship as a team of coaches and everyone has their different strengths and things we’re working on, we push each other to keep getting better. I’m learning all the time, every day off one of them because we’ve got a great team of coaches with a huge amount of experience. It’s great, I love it.

"So far it’s worked out pretty well. We'll see if I’m still sitting here next year.”

If popularity with the squad is any barometer of success, Ulster will likely look to keep him there for some time to come.

Belfast Telegraph