Ulster remain in the dark on McFarland arrival date
The state of flux in the Kingspan Stadium coaching box seems set to rumble on longer still with confirmation yesterday that Ireland’s forwards coach Simon Easterby began helping out Ulster’s current staff on a temporary basis this week.
The province’s incoming head coach Dan McFarland remains contracted to the Scotland national team until January, despite the SRU having already confirmed his replacement in the shape of former Cardiff boss Danny Wilson.
With it initially believed McFarland could be freed from his nine-month notice period in time to take some part in the pre-season preparations that got under way last week, his present employers appear to be digging in their heels.
And while Ulster apparently remain hopeful that some compromise can still be reached, it would no longer pass as a surprise should the former Connacht man not have his feet under the table until the early weeks of 2019, almost 11 months on since former head coach Jono Gibbes originally intimated his intention to leave the organisation after just one season.
Should that come to pass, however, it will be a scenario that poses some interesting logistical issues for the IRFU.
When former Director of Rugby Les Kiss was seconded to Belfast in 2014 on what was originally meant to be a temporary basis — and Ulster will be hoping that few parallels are drawn between the current predicament and that ill-fated period — he was returned to HQ after only six games, heading back to Dublin in mid-October ahead of an upcoming slate of November internationals.
Then, like now, Ireland were on the final countdown to a World Cup and the belief was that national coach Joe Schmidt could ill-afford to be denied the services of a key lieutenant given how limited the preparation time can seem for the showpiece tournament which rolls around only every four years.
This situation is not quite an exact replica.
“Ireland coach Simon Easterby will provide coaching support at Ulster in the interim period before the arrival of new head coach Dan McFarland,” began the briefest of statements.
“Simon will commence work with the Ulster coaching staff this week.”
The wording seemed careful to avoid calling Easterby the interim head coach, opting instead only to say he will provide support. As such, should Schmidt decide Easterby is required back in his day job only a handful of games into the season, the inference will be that the transition is not disruptive.
While it remains to be seen exactly how the far from ideal new arrangement will work, at the very least Ulster will have one more good coach helping them through pre-season at the end of this week than they had at the start.
The former Irish international flanker has been part of the national coaching set-up since 2014 when he replaced John Plumtree on Schmidt’s ticket.
As a forwards specialist, he provides something Ulster will be lacking until McFarland’s arrival. While Dwayne Peel is handling attack, Jared Payne defence, Aaron Dundon the scrum and Dan Soper skills, Easterby’s area of expertise, compared to say another Ireland assistant such as Andy Farrell, fills a sizeable void in the preparations.
So too does his level of experience. The ink on Payne’s retirement papers are barely dry, while Soper is in his first year in the pro game. Peel and Dundon, two Kiss appointees, have only a couple of seasons of experience combined.
With McFarland overseeing the programme from afar, the proof will only be in the pudding. With Kiss serving as a reminder of the pitfalls, Ulster will seemingly just have to hope that this time their waiting game pays off.