Not getting Connacht job was blessing in disguise: McFarland
When mapping out his career as a young coach, there was a time when Dan McFarland hoped he'd one day be in the visitors' coaching box come occasions like Saturday.
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The man who has guided Ulster back to the Guinness PRO14 knockouts, and will see his side face Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in the quarter-finals (5.35pm kick-off), once coveted the top job in Galway.
Having played for the likes of Richmond and Stade Francais to start his career, he settled in the west of Ireland as a player and then a forwards coach when Sportsground legend Eric Elwood left in 2013.
McFarland applied for the post before the job ultimately went to Pat Lam. Connacht won the league just three years later, and McFarland went to Scotland, first with Glasgow and then the national side, before returning to Ireland last summer to replace Jono Gibbes and head up Ulster's ticket.
"For a long time I thought that I'd like to be the Connacht head coach," he reflected. "I didn't get it and I was gutted.
"I thought everyone in the world except me was wrong. It took me a month to realise that I was the person who was wrong and I didn't deserve the job.
"It was a good job I didn't get it as well because I wasn't ready. Pat came in and it opened my eyes to the fact I had to move on.
"I could have stayed in Connacht forever, absolutely no problems. I loved the place and I still do.
"But in terms of growth, I had to move on, I had to go somewhere else to learn and I was very lucky that Gregor (Townsend, then Glasgow coach) asked me to do that. It gave me the chance to broaden my horizons."
The summer just gone provided something of a sliding doors moment. Andy Friend, known to IRFU High Performance Director David Nucifora through their links to the Brumbies, was heavily linked to the soon-to-be vacant Ulster gig this time last year.
Instead, the day it broke that McFarland would be the man for the northern province, Kieran Keane left Connacht after just one season. Friend was soon installed in Galway, a job that once would have seemed tailor-made for McFarland.
Both provinces, one imagines, are delighted with how things have worked out, their first-year head coaches bringing the sides back into the PRO14 play-offs after two-season absences. Only one of their encouraging campaigns will continue beyond this weekend, the victors of Saturday's game going on to meet Glasgow in the semi-finals.
Ulster, at home, are naturally favourites but recent form is with Connacht, the only team McFarland's men have faced twice this season without beating.
Their win over Ulster in October was their first in Belfast in 58 years, while overall they have won the last three games against their northern neighbours.
"Andy (Friend) has done a very good job there," McFarland said. "He's brought back a positive culture that potentially went missing for a year.
"They've got a squad there that's been together for a long time. They've got a number of players who play in a cohesive unit.
"They also have some good coaches, I know Jimmy (Duffy) and Nige (Carolan) very well, and the players and coaches are doing a good job there.
"(They play) similarly to ourselves. We look to play a game full of collective speed that has intent in our collisions.
"For us, if we don't match that or beat it, we won't win the game. That's where a lot of it will be played.
"They are a tenacious side and they work very hard for each other, and that's just a legacy of many years of Connacht rugby. It's really great to see that that's back now.
"It was pretty painful last time (at the Sportsground) and it was painful when we lost here too, but let's not get away from it - we don't have a right to win.
"They are a team that's beaten us twice this year fair and square. We haven't been able to do the job and it's a difficult task to beat them, as difficult a task as we've had all year.
"They're in rude health and playing well. They are confident, you can hear from what they say in the press that they're confident of coming here and beating us, so it's going to be a tough one."
While Connacht will be without Irish international lock Quinn Roux, Ulster have been dealt a blow with the news that Jacob Stockdale is "unlikely" to feature.
With retirement looming, Rory Best trained yesterday though and, along with veteran centre Darren Cave, seems set for an emotional farewell to the Kingspan crowd.
"It's not really talked about at all," McFarland said.
"It's not something even they want to talk about because there's too much at stake for them as professional rugby players to make sure they get their own job right. That might sound strange.
"For a lot of people the emotion of being involved in a match where hopefully Rory and Darren are getting a send-off at Kingspan, one they wholeheartedly deserve, that's a very important thing and would be a fabulous thing to be involved in.
"But for them, they've got a lot to focus on. Let's say that it is Rory's last game at the Kingspan Stadium, he'll want to play well, he'll want to put everything out there, but for the squad we've just got a job to focus on."
Sean Reidy continues to go through the return to play protocols having sustained a concussion in an accidental collision with team-mate Alan O'Connor against Leinster last week.
Marty Moore, Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik, Will Addison and James Hume have already been ruled out for the rest of the season.