McFarland: I'm proud of Ulster progress after my first season in charge
As the dust settles on Ulster's Guinness PRO14 exit at the hands of Glasgow last weekend, head coach Dan McFarland is able to reflect not just on the 50-20 mauling at the hands of the Warriors, but on the strides made that carried the province to the semi-finals of the competition.
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If the way Ulster's season ended showed the scale of the work still to be done, the previous nine months were evidence of the steady improvement made in McFarland's first year in charge, bringing knock-out rugby back to Belfast after two years out of the play-offs.
While naturally disappointed with the manner of the Scotstoun defeat, with a host of young players like Eric O'Sullivan experiencing their first season at this level, the coach believes there is little to be gained from dwelling on the abrupt end to the campaign.
"I said in the changing room I am really proud of what the players have done this year," said the man who replaced Jono Gibbes last summer.
"We are not going to dwell on that game, we will use it as a tool for learning but we are not going to dwell on it.
"I'm proud of the effort the guys put in, proud of their drive to get better, proud of their competitiveness and the way they fought out some really tough games to get to where we are."
A career assistant prior to getting his job with Ulster, McFarland has learnt many valuable lessons during this first season in the hot-seat.
"What was really pleasing to see was that over the course of the year, the philosophy around coaching held strong," he said.
"It was really pleasing to see that the ideas I had around the culture and the context that I was coming into held strong.
"The way I ran the day, the workings of the team, (there's) definitely learnings.
"Going forward next year it will be a focus on new learning, it does not mean it becomes easier, it just means you can focus on other stuff. Some of the baseline stuff is in place and now I can focus on other things that will make us better."
With the World Cup pushing back the PRO14 kick-off until the end of September, Ulster's next competitive game isn't for some 18 weeks, a much longer than normal pre-season. McFarland wasn't in position until after the first friendly last year, with his assistant coaches and Ireland forwards specialist Simon Easterby holding down the fort until his arrival in late August.
This time around he is looking forward to being considerably more hands-on throughout the summer.
"We will have a good break, the guys will refresh and will look after themselves when they go away," he said.
"Nowadays when you are a pro rugby player the year does not really stop. The pre-season, as a group we have done a lot of planning already, we know the direction we want to go in, and it will be a good pre-season and I am looking forward to it.
"It will be really enjoyable for me to be there for a pre-season, a lot of work goes into that from all staff.
"We will build on what we have done this year. There will not be big changes because we just have a way that we do things in Ulster and that will stay pretty much the same, maybe a couple of themes on how we do it will change."
Planning for next season is already well underway of course, with Bill Johnston yesterday becoming the fifth player confirmed to be joining up for 2019/20.
The move, which was reported earlier this month, will see the Munster man join a group of out-halves that currently includes Billy Burns, Johnny McPhillips and Michael Lowry.
"Bill is a very exciting young prospect who, for a number of reasons, has had limited playing opportunities over the past couple of years," added McFarland.
"He obviously feels now is the right time for a new challenge in his career and he will bring enthusiasm and unquestionable talent to our squad.
"We're confident that he'll be a really good addition."