Ulster optimistic for swift arrival as McFarland appointment ticks all the boxes
Good things may come to those who wait, but it is hoped that incoming Ulster head coach Dan McFarland is not delayed in starting his tenure at Kingspan Stadium after the Scottish forwards coach was confirmed as the man to replace Jono Gibbes for next season.
The former Connacht and Glasgow man, who has also coached Ireland representative sides, has signed a three-year deal with the northern province with his arrival date all that’s left to be agreed.
When it was announced some two months ago that Gibbes was to leave this summer, the news that the highly thought of Kiwi would swiftly follow Les Kiss out the exit door seemed to leave the province with a leadership void.
With clubs like Ospreys, Cardiff and Harlequins all in the market at the same time, it appeared a far from ideal time to be carrying out a coaching search, not least in a season when the organisation has been under fire from all directions.
But, backed by the IRFU, it certainly looks as if the side have acquired a figure befitting Operations Director Bryn Cunningham’s “primary target” designation.
When the former full-back turned front office executive uttered the phrase in the underbelly of Thomond Park on Saturday evening, there were no doubt a few expecting something of an over-promise, under-deliver scenario.
But in McFarland — a former prop with Richmond, Connacht and Stade Francais — they have a coach who certainly can be said to tick the right boxes, has been well thought of throughout his career and who, it would appear, Scotland are loathe to lose a little over a year out from the World Cup in Japan.
When Cunningham addressed the media over the weekend, he added that any announcement of the deal was still weeks away.
However, with McFarland linked to the job for the first time in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, Scotland soon put out a statement admitting that the 46-year-old would be leaving in “mid-January” to take up a head coaching role, the lengthy delay due to a nine-month release clause in his contract.
Ulster confirmation that his destination was Belfast came soon after with no start date mentioned, but it is understood there is genuine belief that it will be long before 2019 when he first takes charge, with pre-season far from out of the question.
Such a step seems only practical, especially once a replacement is secured by the SRU. It would make little sense to pay two coaches to do one job, while Scotland meet Ireland twice in 2019 — once in the World Cup pool stages — which would only put all involved in a difficult position.
McFarland, who got hugely impressive displays out of an injury-depleted Scottish pack during the recent Six Nations, most notably in the win over England, had been based in Scotland since 2015, national head coach Gregor Townsend taking him with him from Glasgow to the Test arena.
Ulster, of course, will hope to avoid the kind of prolonged wait that followed Kiss’ appointment when the former Ireland defence coach waited a little over 12 months between the announcement of his move and getting his feet under the table at Kingspan Stadium.
McFarland is already looking forward to getting back into Irish Rugby.
“I am really excited that I will be taking on the Ulster head coach role,” he said.
“I know first-hand from my years visiting with Connacht and Glasgow the passion and fervour that makes playing in front of Ulster fans so special.
“It’s a club with a great history and I welcome the challenge of being a part of their future.”
Able to elaborate much further than his weekend comments, Cunningham reiterated that the Oxfordshire-born man had been their target all along.
“Dan was our No.1 candidate so we’re obviously very happy to have secured his services for the next three years,” said the chief.
“Dan’s CV is hugely impressive and he commands great respect within the game.
“He enjoyed successful spells with Connacht and Glasgow, and the fact that Gregor (Townsend) brought him into the Scotland set-up speaks volumes for how highly he rates him.
“Our priority in this process was to identify and recruit the best possible candidate first and foremost.
“With the confirmation of Dan’s appointment, we will be announcing at least one further addition to the coaching team in the near future to ensure that we have a strong unit in place in advance of pre-season.”
There are more additions to the coaching ticket to come, with Ulster believed to be targeting at least one, but possibly two more assistants.
A defensive specialist is also considered to be a high priority ahead of the next campaign.