Rugby World Cup: McFarland believes Scotland more than a fast and loose side

Ulster coach and former Scotland assistant knows Scots need to measure up at set-piece

Dan McFarland's intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Scottish rugby was accumulated during his time as assistant coach to Gregor Townsend at the Glasgow Warriors from 2015-2017 and also in the capacity as forwards' coach to the Scotland national team before taking up his current position as head coach at Ulster.

McFarland has spoken in the past about how Townsend influenced his thinking – Pat Lam was another he singled out during their time together at Connacht – as a coach and the friendship the two enjoy. If the 47-year-old former prop has a conflict of loyalties on Sunday morning when Ireland play Scotland in the Rugby World Cup Pool A match he's not clarifying the matter.

What he did divulge is that his son, Thomas, with whom he usually watches rugby matches and is currently studying at Strathclyde University, is a massive Ireland fan.

McFarland left his position with the Scots in 2018 and was succeeded in the role by Danny Wilson, whom he pointed out has put his imprimatur on directing the Scottish forwards, noticeably in the lineout maul and scrum orientation. What he also flagged was the misguided assertion that Scotland is a team that can only play one way; fast and loose.


He used the example of Scotland's 38-38 draw against England at Twickenham in last season's Six Nations Championship, a match in which Townsend's side trailed 31-7 at one point. "There was a lot of talk of the 'huge change' in the way they played, but I don't buy that.

“They more or less played the same way in second half, they just did it better. They kicked poorly in the first half, but in the second half they were just much better at kicking the ball. They didn’t throw everything to the wind in the second half, but I thought it was remarkable how they got back on their feet after being knocked down by England.”

So what does he make of the upcoming game on Sunday. “If the game is loose and open, then Scotland are so dangerous but Ireland know that and my guess, will look to squeeze them at set-piece. Scotland’s set-piece has improved over the last number of years; if they can hold them there and get a bit of counterattack [ball] in the game, maybe they can [win]. Ireland have got to go into the game as favourites, naturally.”

The World Cup warm-up games against France presented the two faces of Scottish rugby, overwhelmed physically in the game in Paris but then responding with a victory when the two countries met again the following weekend in Edinburgh.

The accusations from the first game were that Scotland needed to tighten things up and not be so loose but McFarland argued that trying to dominate teams with a power game is “not in their make-up.”

He continued: “This [Scotland] is not a team built with France’s forwards or England’s forwards, playing with speed for them is smart; tactically perhaps around the kicking, that’s something Gregor will look at as a change-up, but they’re a smart kicking team and it’s just a question of executing it accurately.

"They're not a side who'll look to physically dominate an opposition, they're smart rugby players who can play at speed, John Barclay, Ryan Wilson, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Duncan Taylor; these are classy players, they're not [Mathieu] Bastareaud type player."

McFarland has three of his Ulster players, Ireland captain Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale in Japan and backed them to recover from one or two issues arising from the warm-up matches.

“Jacob deals with pressure very well. He’s a confident young man, a class player and he’s a real difference maker.

“The kind of tries he scored for us last year, Racing at home, are [representative of the quality] you need at that level if you’re going to beat a team like Scotland or win a quarter-final; you need people who can do something that’s a bit different.

“He was exceptional in his last game with Ireland, you could see it in him. He wasn’t as happy in Twickenham with his own performance, but backed it up with that real competitive edge and showed something special.”

Ireland's lineout has misfired at times but McFarland has no doubt about Henderson's ability to call them and ignore any external opinion. "They're broad shoulders, he's a good player and with James Ryan there as well, they're two excellent players. There is a little pressure there, I suppose, the lineout hasn't been the best thing but I back them to solve those issues."

The weather forecast, heavy rain, will have a bearing on how both sides look to control the game. McFarland warned that Scotland possess an excellent kicking game that shouldn’t be overlooked. And as to a winner, he’s keeping shtum.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer