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My grandad would be tickled pink: Why Ulster job is extra special for Dan McFarland



Raring to go: New Ulster head coach Dan McFarland

Raring to go: New Ulster head coach Dan McFarland

©INPHO/Matt Mackey

Raring to go: New Ulster head coach Dan McFarland

Sat in what will soon become a familiar chair, new Ulster head coach Dan McFarland could pass for a native if not betrayed by his English accent.

As he addressed the media for the first time since his belated arrival at Kingspan Stadium yesterday, he spoke of a childhood spent transfixed by the Five Nations, vociferously cheering on green-clad hopefuls despite the presumed upset caused to his neighbours.

When he says that Trevor Ringland was his favourite player, it is not playing to the gallery.

For though the 46-year-old spent his formative years in Oxfordshire, his rugby loyalties have always laid with Ireland.

And while after a decade-and-a half spent with Connacht both as player and assistant coach, the westerners are the province with whom he has hitherto been associated.

It is in fact a link forged much closer to his new home.

"My grandfather was from Belfast, he was born here and brought up here," explained McFarland.

"Work took him to England. He was an engineer at power stations in the middle of the country then he ended his career as chief engineer at a nuclear power station down in the southwest.

"There's a lot of stuff about my grandad that my dad hasn't told me yet, he died when I was ten, but I have really fond memories of him. He played rugby (for Queen's) and that's why my dad was interested in rugby and that's why I started watching and supporting Ireland.

"I remember when I rung my dad and told him I was taking this job he said my grandad would be tickled pink."

Strong familial ties are perhaps one reason then that McFarland was willing to risk something of a professional purgatory to be sitting where he is today, preparing his side to host Scarlets in this weekend's PRO14 opener.

When identified as the man both Ulster and the IRFU wanted to succeed the departed Jono Gibbes in the Kingspan Stadium hotseat, his contract with the Scottish Rugby Union was an obvious stumbling block.

He'd been in their system since leaving Connacht in 2015, first as Gregor Townsend's forwards coach at Glasgow and then moving with him to the national side. With Scotland naturally loathe to lose a key lieutenant so close to the World Cup - one which, ironically enough, they will begin by meeting Ireland - a stand-off ensued.

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Talk of relations between the two unions having already soured by the voting for the 2023 World Cup were hardly refuted with a few somewhat terse statements over the matter and there were times this summer when even those inside Ulster began to believe their new man would be made to see out a full nine-month notice period.

Eager to sink his teeth into the challenge, McFarland had to bide his time until an eventual breakthrough in negotiations only two weekends ago.

"I always understood the situation," he said calmly. "There was always a willingness when the deal was done to wait nine months and work my notice and that the IRFU and Ulster would be willing to wait as well.

"At the same time there was obviously a real desire to get it sorted earlier and eventually it was done. Decisions are never black and white. I really enjoyed my time in Scotland. I've got a lot of friends there but ultimately when a province like Ulster speak to you and say 'we'd like you to be our head coach' that's special.

"I always wanted to be a head coach. I got a good piece of advice earlier on in my career that I shouldn't be tripping over myself. You have to be ready and the opportunity has to be right. Those two things married up in this situation. Ultimately it was a good decision. I know that in my gut."

He brings to Ulster the experience of a somewhat nomadic rugby career. His professional life started when he eschewed the chance of studying a PGCE in favour of signing with the then nouveau riche Richmond where he would live in a house owned by soon-to-be Ulster hero Simon Mason. It was as part of that star-studded squad where he showed the first glimpses of a technical ability and understanding that have made him a forwards expert of some repute, laughing that it was a skill born out of necessity when he realised he couldn't match the talents of some of his more illustrious team-mates.

Through a spell at Stade Francais, the transformative years at the Sportsground, and most recently his time in Scotland, he arrives at his first head gig as something of a composite of the experiences but with one core belief intact, the need to play a swift style of rugby.

"I think I've been lucky enough in my career both as a player and as a coach to be exposed to lots of different styles of rugby but ultimately it's my desire to play a game with speed where our team can work at a pace that causes the opposition difficulties and outlasts the opposition. We're products of our environment. In Glasgow we did it but even before that with Pat (Lam) in Connacht, that was the style of rugby we played there. The ball moved fast, the players moved fast.

"I always remember when I first arrived in Connacht that wasn't the way we played. It was bump and grind stuff and that lasted for a long time until Eric Elwood first said 'no we're not going to play like that anymore, if it's going to be tough every week, I want to be enjoying it.' So that's how it started and that's where I've gone with it."

Given his late arrival, putting such structures in place has been an all-consuming process. With his wife Danielle still in Scotland as the pair's two children make the final preparations for university life in Glasgow and Edinburgh, McFarland said he has seen little else but his office, the training paddock and the unfurnished house he now calls home.

His only trip any further afield was a weekend visit to the cinema. That he fell asleep in the middle of Blackkklansman says more about the quality of rest he's been afforded by the solitary mattress laid out in the middle of his floor than director Spike Lee's story-telling prowess.

The somewhat spartan lifestyle doesn't seem to be grating though and he is eagerly anticipating Saturday and his first game at the helm.

"There are some very talented players here and I believe they are the kind of players that are going to play the kind of rugby I want in the long run," he said. "We will not do it right away, it will be something which is fed in gradually, but there are foundations in place. I am very positive about that, and in fact if I did not think that, I would not have taken the job.

"The first thing I remember about coming up here to play was the competitive spirit, that fight for every inch mentality. Nothing was given for free.

"When I look at the players now that's the first thing I'm looking for. Before the detail and everything else we have to lay down that marker and show that kind of spirit."

Dan joked that to have the Ulster fans on his side for a change will be a nice moment for him.

No doubt it'll be a proud one too. For the whole McFarland clan.

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