Learning a key factor in Dan McFarland’s Ulster growth plan
Ulster coach’s goal is for province to become a team that can consistently compete for championships
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland addresses his players ahead of the province’s Pro14 match against Glasgow at Scotstoun Stadium last month. Photograph: Inpho
Dan McFarland likes some family time, likes reading, likes American Football and likes the movies too. He actually managed to make it to the cinema on Tuesday to see the Avengers’ Endgame, without realising it was three hours long.
“After about an hour and a half I was desperate to get a bit of work done because it was eating into my day.”
As he’s discovering after a dozen years an assistant coach with Connacht, Ireland Under-20s, Emerging Ireland, the Ireland Wolfhounds, Glasgow and Scotland, being a head coach is a tad more time consuming.
He’s enjoyed it and says that luckily he loves learning, the biggest learning thus far being the gap between being a forwards coach and being over everything.
“I knew that there was obviously a gap but I didn’t realise how much that would impact on the way that I approached my work.”
“As a forwards coach I obviously had an input into the big picture in each club but ultimately you don’t have responsibility for that. So you can input with creativity without the responsibility and then that means that a lot of your focus is on the very detailed work in terms of your responsibility over forward play.”
“I loved doing that, and spent a lot of my energy on that, whereas now it’s flipped. A lot of my energy goes on the bigger picture stuff, and being responsible for the creativity around that but also the decision-making, and the finer detail of what goes into the rugby. I have to know, and I have to understand, but mainly be supportive of the guys who are the experts in those areas.”
A year into a three-year deal as assistant Scottish coach to Gregor Townsend, he could have stayed put of course.
“I never left the assistant coach’s job with Scotland because I didn’t want to do it. If this job hadn’t come along, I’d still be extremely happy doing what I was doing. But when the opportunity to coach Ulster came along it was something that just felt right and was a fantastic opportunity.”
Having worked for 17 years in the Pro14, and with a grandfather from Belfast who played for Queen’s University before moving to England, made it feel even more right.
“I also felt that when I was stepping into my first head coaching role I wanted to be in an organisation that was looking at growth. It suited where I am as a person, but also at this stage I am in my career. We both needed to grow, both the organisation and myself just suited each other perfectly.”
His grandfather Danny moved to Rugby, a market town in Warwickshire where, of course, William Webb Ellis is famed for creating the sport, as wan engineer who managed coal power stations, which he also did in Leeds and Sheffield, before becoming a chief engineer at a nuclear station in the southwest.
His dad, Paddy, was born in Rugby, and attended the same school as McFarland, Ampleforth College, before winning a Blue with Oxford University and also playing for Headingley and London Irish.
“He was actually a centre slash wing,” says McFarland, laughing. “I always dreamed about being a centre slash wing, but it never quite unfolded that way!”
“My brother played at school but didn’t take it as seriously as I did,” as did his grandfather on his mum, Liz’s, side.
Having started playing at Ampleforth, McFarland also played for Newcastle University. Morley was his first proper club, and after the game went professional in 1995, a year later he joined Richmond, one of the founding members of the RFU and the first to embrace professionalism before they were one of the first victims of same in 1999, being merged with, and effectively gobbled up by, London Irish.
“We were backed by Ashley Levett and I suppose Richmond and Newcastle were the early glitterati of professional rugby, except for me. It was awash with international rugby players. John Kingston was the coach, there was a really good atmosphere. They really had to find their own identity with that mass of players, and that process was brilliant right up until the point Ashley Levett pulled his money out of it.”
McFarland relocated to Stade Francais, another nouveau riche product of professionalism under the flamboyant Max Gauzzini with a cast of galacticos for the 1999-2000, when the Parisians won the French Championship.
But that only tells half the tale.
“I had a good year there. I enjoyed it. Bernard Laporte was the coach at the start of the season, and when he became the French coach we had George Costes, who’d coached Perpignan and Italy, for a few months.”
“It was a World Cup year so I played a chunk of games at the beginning of the season but then got injured and didn’t play so many games at the end of the season. I was picked on the bench for the semi-final against Toulouse on the Monday and then I was dropped on the Wednesday.”
“We had no coach at that point,” he adds. “It was so French. Half the players liked George Costes, but the other half didn’t, and the half that didn’t managed to get him sacked, so we actually played out the last three or four months of the season without a head coach, and won the French Championship.”
The assistant coaches and leading players ran the show, and as McFarland notes: “It is a story that is oft repeated in French sport. You think of World Cups in rugby and football when it seems they’re in an absolutely shambolic state, and they end up getting to finals, and winning.”
He had a two-year contract, but McFarland describes the club as “quite disparate and lacking a family feel to it” which was pretty tough for his wife Danielle, as their daughter Alexandria was then 18 months old.
“Also I knew I wasn’t a great player. Stade would have five international props at the club the following year, so I knew I was going to struggle to get first team game time.” Gauzzini allowed him to leave with a year on his contract.
When Richmond went bust he nearly joined Munster but the discussions “dragged along a bit”. He spoke to Munster again, before contacting Kingston, who was then with Galwegians, which led to him joining Connacht.
“At the time they only had 11 professionals, and aside from Eric Elwood, professional was a very loose term. Steph Nel was the coach, and he whipped us into shape I can tell you.”
McFarland spent 15 years there, six as a player and nine as a coach, which means today’s opponents were easily the biggest chunk of his rugby career.
“And the biggest chunk of my learning too. Giving everything I had, whether I lost or I won, was all learned in Connacht. That determination on finding wins was key.”
He still has a large number of very good friends, and likens the welcoming nature of both Galway and Belfast. “It helps in feeling like you belong, and feeling like you belong is the biggest motivator.”
He recalls his first season there, when Connacht were away to Beziers in the fifth round of the Challenge Cup. “The trips to France were always fun. Back then, there’d be a lot of fighting involved. There’d be some enormous French men and a lot of drinking after the games.”
They had lost their first four games but were trailing 10-9 nearing the end.
“We were awarded a penalty on the 22 in front of the posts and Pat Duignan, who was the captain, sprinted forward, and grabbed the ball to take a quick tap and knocked it on. I literally watched this unfold in slow motion. We lost and I remember at the time thinking ‘what the f*** have I done?’ But being in the changing room afterwards it was a turning point, and you felt after that we’d make progress.”
No sooner had McFarland moved on than Connacht won the Pro12 in 2016, beating his Glasgow in a close semi-final. There years working with Gregor Townsend further fulfilled McFarland’s yearning for learning. “I couldn’t have gone to a place because the whole growth mindset mindset that Gregor has, of reaching out to grasp knowledge, was something that was new to me, and was definitely needed. We were pushed to find out new information and knowledge. That’s something I want from the guys here, the support staff here.”
Alexandria is 21 now, and is studying law in Edinburgh University, while their son Thomas is studying Politics and International Policy, at Strathclyde University.
McFarland himself did a degree in the classics at Newcastle. “I’m supposedly a Latin and Greek scholar, but I wasn’t very good at that, and then I did a degree in psychology.” Hence his fascination with sports psychology.
Indeed, this may explain why although he’s a Green Bay Packers fan, he also admires the mentality of the (Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick.
Whether it’s entirely the case or not, McFarland certainly comes across as very calm and composed, who willingly engages with people, seems eminently sensible and modest and, for a coach, almost ego free. Or else he’s a very good actor.
The goal for McFarland is that Ulster become a team that can consistently competes for Championships, ala Leinster and Saracens.
“These are the kind of clubs that most organisations at the elite level aspire to be at. If you get to a stage when you’re consistently in the play-offs, then you’re going to learn how to win those games. You’re not going to win every game every year, because that is so tough. But you’re going to give yourself the best opportunity so that in the year it goes right for you, you’re going to nail that silverware.”
No less than Andy Friend at Connacht, McFarland has consistently said that Ulster have only played their best in patches this season, and he is seeking to create a fast-paced game.
“My background is working with coaches who like to play at speed. I have a love of the contact, of collective speed, that the system lasts longer at a persistent speed than the opposition. For that you need to be physically tough and robust, because you’ve got to be able to train together. That’s something that we’re working hard on here.”
“Around the leadership side of things, I’ve been involved in clubs where belonging has been very important. There certainly is a sense of belonging in Ulster. There’s a tremendous legacy of history and pride in the province, but also within the fellas themselves, and how tight-knit they are. So that will be a key aspect.”
“Learning is another one. We’re always trying to squeeze every drop out of the players and the staff here, and then the competitiveness that we put on the pitch is the third string to it.”
That could certainly be seen in their last two games with Leinster, both when each side was at full tilt at the Aviva in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, and when less so in last Saturday’s relatively dead rubber.
With McFarland at the helm, you sense Ulster will only grow.