Dan McFarland backs the real Ulster to stand up and be counted for Toulouse trip

Head coach admits Leinster final defeat took 48 hours to put behind him

With Ulster coach Dan McFarland, some of the end of his Tuesday press conference explained some of the beginning. Marcel Coetzee, perhaps doubtful for Ulster's quarter-final against Toulouse on Sunday, struggled against Leinster last week with niggling injuries.

He was, said McFarland, being tracked this week. In the run in to Leinster Coetzee didn’t train as much as he had wanted. In the game he tied up, explained the coach.

Players like the fibrous South African flanker is where Ulster often look in challenging games. He is, said the Englishman who spent 15 years in Connacht and now lives in Belfast, as much Ulster as captain Iain Henderson or Stuart McCloskey.

The subject has become an obvious irritant to McFarland and probably for the players too: that the outside infusions, Leinster players particularly, arise each week in some guise as a possible problem rather than say, Ulster’s blue sky thinking and inclusive recruitment.


Sometimes cast subliminally as a negative aspect to Ulster policy, in McFarland's eyes Dublin-born Nick Timoney is as Ulster as Jacob Stockdale, as is Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath, Ian Madigan, or John Cooney. McFarland is getting started. It may be time to put it all to bed.

"I find it amazing the importance people put on which hospital you were born in. Come on," he says. "I was born in a hospital in Chipping Orton in Oxfordshire. I have no interest in Chipping Orton, Oxfordshire. Apparently David Cameron lives there, or, he's got a house there. That's about as much as I know.

“I’ve got an English accent. Does that mean I feel from head to toe English. Yeah part of me is English. I can understand that. I’ve been 15 years in Ireland Thomas [son] was born here. My daughter Alex spent all her life here. Galway is a huge home for me. Now I’m in Belfast. I’ve got things that attach me to Ulster in my family history. I feel a part of the fabric here.

“When Nick Timoney pulls on that jersey he’s an Ulsterman. It’s just as simple as that. There’s a really good quote by a guy called Major Brendan McBreen. He says men don’t fight for the flag, they don’t fight for motherhood, they don’t fight for apple pie. When they are faced with dangerous physical violence men fight for their friends.

“That comes from a study that was done on motivation in the marine core. They volunteer because they want to represent the United States. But they don’t fight [for that reason]. If they are in the trenches in Afghanistan or Iraq the reason they do what they do is because of the people they are fighting with. People’s identity comes from spending time with each other, forging the bonds so when they go on to the pitch they are willing to go to places they wouldn’t so normally.”

McFarland understands similar attachments will unite and are what will get Ulster out of Toulouse in one piece. With a crowd available to the home side too, the recent curse of Irish solitude and the Marcel Marceau act at the Aviva becomes a Moulin Rouge cabaret in Toulouse. Another small adjustment after four games in ghostly silence. But that too makes McFarland chuckle. The speed at which the problem of no crowd becomes a problem because fans are allowed mildly humours him.

The greater issue is how Ulster get over the Leinster defeat and the bulky Toulouse off loaders, their massive scrum and strike runners like Cheslin Colby, a cousin of South African track and field sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, who won the gold medal in the 400 metres at the 2016 Olympics. Colby has the family high-twitch fibres.

But Ulster ‘bouncing back’, McFarland warns, is a worn cliché. Still, there is no doubting the Leinster match, lost in the first half, was wounding. It was not the type of grooming he would have picked for his players seven days before taking off to the south of France.

“With any loss in terms of life as well there is a process of grieving and catharsis that you need to go through,” he says. “Certainly I do any way. In the 48 hours after the final . . . it was as difficult as I’ve done in a long time. But you have to go through that and my experience is I have a process in what I go through in terms of work.

“I have to face it down and be sad, disappointed, however you want to describe it. I know we are talking about sport here. But it is upsetting and depressing. I have to deal with it. I can’t just park it. Some they just want to move on. I always find that certainly doesn’t work for me. I have to feel I take some learning from it. I have to feel the pain, recognise the pain, face it down.”

Ulster’s fate has been that the Pro 14 and Champions Cup have become zero sum games. Everyone wins or everyone loses. The league gone. Now the cup in the balance against a side that won all six of their pool games in a thrilling start to their season.

It goes without saying in Stade Ernest Wallon, Ulster will need to be better than against Leinster. That or again facing down the pain.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times