Richie Murphy to take over from Dan McFarland as Ulster head coach

Ireland Under-20 coach set to take over as interim head coach once Six Nations campaign ends

Ulster Rugby have confirmed that Ireland Under-20s coach Richie Murphy will take over from Dan McFarland, who has stepped down with immediate effect. Murphy will assume the role as interim head coach at the province until the end of the season, but not until the Irish 20s complete their Six Nations programme.

He is currently presiding over Ireland’s unbeaten start to the Under-20 Six Nations Championship with victories over France and Italy. Ireland play Wales on Friday night at Musgrave Park, with the final two games against England on March 8th at the Recreation Ground in Bath (7.15) and Scotland in Musgrave Park on March 15th (7.15).

Ulster have just one fixture in the United Rugby Championship (URC) during that period on Saturday, March 2nd against the Dragons, before undertaking a two-game tour to South Africa later that month. Assistant coach Dan Soper will be in charge for game against the Welsh club, while Bryn Cunningham, head of rugby operations and recruitment will also assume greater management responsibilities within the performance function during this time.

The compromise agreed between the IRFU and Ulster is that Murphy will stay with the Irish 20s as they chase a third successive Grand Slam and then move into the Ulster role for the remainder of the season.


McFarland and the province’s hierarchy agreed to end his five-and-a-half season tenure by mutual consent. Ulster chief executive Jon Petrie thanked McFarland for his work over the past six seasons.

“With Richie [Murphy] coming to Ulster in the coming weeks, ahead of the squad travelling to South Africa, our focus will be on consistently performing to the best of our abilities at this crucial time of the year.”

McFarland’s last game in charge was Sunday’s URC defeat by 19-17 away to the Ospreys. A last-minute drop goal by the home side’s outhalf Dan Edwards left McFarland seething with two critical refereeing decisions.

The defeat also left Ulster eighth in the table, behind the Ospreys on points difference, and just above Munster and Connacht, when a win would have them to fourth in the table, in which case one imagines McFarland might still be in situ. He had another season and a half, until the conclusion of the 2024-25 campaign, remaining on his contract.

After spells with Richmond and Stade Francais, the English-born former prop played for six seasons with Connacht before moving into coaching when he retired in 2006. He spent a decade as an assistant coach Connacht, also working with the Ireland Under-20s, Emerging Ireland and the Ireland Wolfhounds before moving to Glasgow, where he was an assistant coach with the Warriors for two seasons, and spent a season as an assistant coach with Scotland.

He was brought to Ulster in 2018 after a particularly troubled season had left the province at a low ebb. During that 2017-18 season both Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes stepped down in turn.

McFarland brought stability and much improved strength in depth as Ulster became consistent contenders, reaching a final, two semi-finals and a quarter-final in what is now the URC. They came particularly close to winning their first trophy since the Celtic League success of 2005-06 two seasons ago when a Warwick Gelant try in the 85th minute for the Stormers denied Ulster a home final against the Bulls a week later at the Kingspan Stadium.

In the Champions Cup, Ulster reached the quarter-finals twice and the Round of 16 twice, as well as a Challenge Cup semi-final. But this season they failed to advance to the knock-out stages for the first time after performing inconsistently in a difficult pool featuring Racing, Toulouse, Harlequins and Bath, instead qualifying for the Challenge Cup.

Ultimately, McFarland was Ulster’s longest serving head coach in the professional era.

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John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times