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Rising to the challenge

Garry Doyle

It is a Friday night in Belfast. Flags are being unfurled, drums starting to beat. Over two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a divided place. But on this night the issue polarising opinion isn’t political or religious. “It is about respect,” said a young woman holding a placard in her hand. ‘Love Rugby, Hate Misogyny,’ it read.

Across the street from where she was standing, Ulster fans making their way to the Kingspan Stadium for that evening’s game against the Ospreys were somewhat bemused by the peaceful drama unfolding in front of them. “Is that all they have?” said one middle-aged man, wearing a sheepskin coat and a smug smile. “Their numbers aren’t terribly large, are they?”

He had missed the point. Inside the Kingspan Stadium, the numbers weren’t impressive either. The previous season, 2016/17, Ulster recorded the third highest home support in European club rugby. But on the evening of April 13 2018, there was more talk about empty seats than occupied ones, certain fans boycotting the game because of that trial. Earlier that week, two of Ulster’s players – out-half Paddy Jackson, and centre, Stuart Olding – had been acquitted of rape in one of the most high profile trials Ireland has had in recent years. The fall-out from the case had been huge. During the trial, crude WhatsApp messages exchanged between Jackson and Olding, had been made public, resulting in Ulster’s main sponsor, Bank of Ireland, expressing “concern” in a letter addressed to Ulster Rugby’s chief executive. 

With the threat of losing a big sponsor, and also of further protests by Belfast’s Feminist Network outside their stadium, Ulster were the focus of intense scrutiny. The day after that Ospreys game, Ulster Rugby and the IRFU sacked Jackson and Olding, issuing a statement that referenced a ‘responsibility and commitment to the core values of the game: respect, inclusivity and integrity’. It was a decision that split the Ulster support base and it would be a while before things got better.

Paddy Jackson Stuart Olding
The Paddy Jackson and Stuart Holding trial shook Ulster to its core (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

In the meantime head coach Jono Gibbes announced his intention to leave, resulting in Ulster searching for their third head coach in six months, while on national radio, Brian O’Driscoll, the former Ireland and Lions captain, was asked whether Joey Carbery should relocate from Leinster to Belfast. “No,” O’Driscoll replied. “That club is a basket case.”

The host of the radio show laughed. By the end of that month, Ulster was a club without a coach, an out-half, and to outsiders – an identity. People were openly laughing at them. That was three years ago. The story of their turnaround has been fascinating to watch – and it begins with a young man standing on Ireland’s Atlantic Coast.

The making of a leader

In the first decade of this century, Connacht were used to either being patronised or beaten. For six years in a row they finished last in the Celtic League (the forerunner to the Pro14 championship). Dan McFarland and Michael Swift were there for it all, the former as a player then assistant coach.

“There comes a time,” Swift, who holds the club’s appearance record, said, “when you just say, ‘this is us, this is who we are’. We fight. We’re determined to battle for what we are.”

While the Pro14 title won under Pat Lam in 2016 is officially acknowledged as Connacht’s only silverware, the resolve they showed in 2003 to avoid being put out of business remains their biggest victory; McFarland the unsung hero of that success story.

One year in particular, they had to fight harder than ever. We’re talking about January 2003 and the threat of closing Connacht down is on the IRFU agenda.

“It was a harrowing time,” Swift says. “I mean you are talking about players livelihoods. Thankfully, Dan (McFarland) was there. Look, I’d played with Dan at Richmond, so I knew the type of person he was, an incredible leader, a fighter. He’d become our player liason officer and he spoke so passionately about what we were up against. “We’re not done here,” he said at one point. “We’ll fight this.” They won the scrap, the turning point coming when a march – that McFarland helped to organise – to the IRFU headquarters persuaded the administrators inside the building to reverse their decision. So while the Pro14 title won under Pat Lam in 2016 is officially acknowledged as Connacht’s only silverware, the resolve they showed in 2003 to avoid being put out of business remains their biggest victory; McFarland the unsung hero of that success story.

Dan McFarland
Dan McFarland has brought intelligence and a fighting spirit to Ulster (Photo by Bob Bradford – Getty Images)

So while many were surprised when Ulster plucked him from Scottish rugby in 2018 – where he worked as Gregor Townsend’s forwards coach – Swift wasn’t. “Dan has always been a leader,” he says. “He showed that during Connacht’s darkest hour.” Now it was Ulster crying out to see the dawn.

There were bleak hours before it’d arrive, though. In McFarland’s first year, 2018-19, Leinster beat them 40-7; a defeat dwarfed by the 64 points Munster put on them early in that campaign. There and then Ulster weren’t just losing rugby matches but their self-respect. Rediscovering it took time.

Smells like teen spirit

Connacht hadn’t won in Belfast since the 1950s when they arrived in Belfast in October 2018. History was soon rewritten. Tom O’Toole, Ulster’s young tight-head, was schooled that night, yet when the game was reviewed the following Monday, a protective arm was thrown around him.

South African international, Marcell Coetzee, spoke up, admitting he hadn’t made an acceptable contribution to the scrum. He wasn’t alone in the confession box. Every player contributed to the discussion, each accepting their share of responsibility. The message was clear. A culture of togetherness was developing and it helped they had McFarland there to spearhead things.

At the time of his appointment, McFarland’s name was greeted with shrugs rather than cheers on the Kingspan terraces, the absence of head coaching experience on his CV not quite tallying with Ulster’s claim they’d sourced the world for the best possible candidate.

But they liked his ‘we fight for every inch’ mantra. Under McFarland, Ulster’s maul was revived, their scrum improved – although recently the coach marked the scrum with a ‘C’ grade. “Dan’s a realist, his own harshest critic,” said John Kingston, the former Harlequins coach who guided Quins to the 2012 Premiership, and who gave McFarland his break in professional rugby, at Richmond.

The realist identified other problems, principally a lack of squad depth. He asked for time rather than money to solve that issue, promoting youth to his panel and also dispensing with an old Ulster policy of spending heavily on marquee signings – in the last they landed Charles Piutau and Ruan Pienaar – to instead seek quantity rather than top-end quality.

Ruan Pienaar Charles Piutau
After marquee signings like Ruan Pienaar and Charles Piutau, youth was promoted (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

In the meantime a never-give-up spirit was developed, evidenced by the last gasp wins over Scarlets and Edinburgh in McFarland’s first season and a critical late surge in Leicester that sent them into the 2019 Champions Cup quarter-finals, where they’d lose agonisingly to Leinster. They’d go on to reach another Champions Cup quarter-final the following year as well as the Pro14 decider. People were taking note, not least former Ulster and Ireland winger, Andrew Trimble.

“One guy in particular retired soon enough after me,” said Trimble, “so he had exposure to Dan (in his first season in charge of Ulster), and his thoughts are that if we had have had Dan McFarland for any period during our career, we would have won something.

“I like how balanced his approach is, like the fact he places an emphasis on Ulster playing their own style, like that he has backed the young fellas. Eric O’Sullivan, Robert Baloucoune, Rob Lyttle, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Michael Lowry, Tom O’Toole – he’s brought them through.

For all the progress – Ulster winning 16 out of 21 matches in this, McFarland’s third year in charge – there are also harsh truths. They have lost their most important games this season.

“Remember when Dan played Mike Lowry out of position against Leicester (in the 2018/19 season)? It didn’t matter that they were a European heavyweight; Dan knew Mike was good enough. He’s taken Ulster so far and yes, there is another step to go but he has done a very good job.”

Others agree. This is Rory Best, the former Ulster and Ireland captain: “Very early on in his tenure, Dan came in and talked about winning trophies; so when they revamped the Champions Cup this year and Ulster ended up in the Challenge Cup, you sort of looked at it and thought, if Ulster are going to win a trophy soon, then this is the one to go after. It could be a catalyst.”

It may well be. Yet for all the progress – Ulster winning 16 out of 21 matches in this, McFarland’s third year in charge – there are also harsh truths. They have lost their most important games this season – against Toulouse and a weakened Gloucester in the Champions Cup; against Leinster (twice) in the Pro14. In each of those games they led at critical moments. Each time they lost.

You could say, justifiably, that rugby is a game of momentum shifts; you could also point to the scarcely believable comeback Ulster staged in Edinburgh last year to reach the 2019/20 Pro14 final.

But you could also point out a harsher truth: Ulster have ended up in the Challenge Cup this season because their Champions Cup results in December weren’t good enough.

Challenging Times

This week McFarland made a salient point about the club’s 15-year trophy famine. “Someone described it as a monkey on our back and my answer has been that I’m not carrying anyone else’s monkey,” he said. The issue needed to be addressed because in the last four weeks, four of his players, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney, Stuart McCloskey and Rob Herring all referenced the trophy drought in different interviews. 

To understand why, we need to revisit the past again.

You may not remember this. Some of you may be of a certain age that you may not even know it. But before Leinster had their day in the sun, even before Munster had theirs, Ulster were Irish rugby’s top team.

Way back in 1984, the grand slam touring Wallabies made fools out of the four home nations, England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. They didn’t beat ‘the fifth nation’ though. When Australia travelled to Belfast to play Ulster, they lost 15-13. The ground was packed that day; the game televised live on a weekday afternoon and watched by nearly a third of Northern Ireland’s population.

For many Ulster supporters, their provincial team is placed way ahead of their national one in terms of allegiance. Ulster first, Ireland a distant second.

When life was at its grimmest in Northern Ireland during the ’80s, sport helped heal divisions in a troubled and politicised society. And sport excelled.

Politics largely explains this, six of Ulster’s nine counties residing in Northern Ireland. It’s not just that, though.

When life was at its grimmest in Northern Ireland during the ’80s, sport helped heal divisions in a troubled and politicised society. And sport excelled. The national football team qualified for two World Cups in 1982 and 1986; its two leading snooker players, Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor, were world champions; Barry McGuigan, an Ulsterman from the Republic of Ireland, fought and won a world boxing championship out of Belfast; and the Ulster rugby team kept winning and winning.

Jordi Murphy
Under captain Jordi Murphy, Ulster boast a collective spirit that could bring them their first silverware in 15 years (Photo By Matt Impey/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

From 1981 – one of the darkest years of the Troubles through to the 1994-95 season – Ulster played Munster 13 times, won 12 and drew once; they beat Leinster nine years in a row; won ten interprovincial titles on the trot and then, after a dip, became the first Irish side to win a Heineken Cup, in 1999. The team was a source of hope as well as pride.

So, when the sporting slump arrived post 2006, it was inevitable questions would arise. Coaches came and went – the current Saracens’ supremo, Mark McCall, left unhappily shortly after guiding Ulster to their last major trophy in 2006; Matt Williams, once of Leinster and Scotland, had an unsuccessful spell, Marc Anscombe an unsatisfactory one.

Along the way there have been near misses – defeat in a Heineken Cup final and two Pro14 deciders – and the galling side of seeing their league rivals, for the most part Leinster, but also Munster, Connacht, Glasgow, Ospreys, Scarlets, Cardiff Blues, win silverware while their drought went on and on and on.

It is 15 years now and counting since they won something – so while the Challenge Cup is seen by some as the ugly duckling in European rugby, for Ulster, it has become a prize worth chasing. Win this, and like Bristol last year, they’ll hope it’ll lead to something bigger and better down the line.

The only trouble is Friday’s semi-final opponents, Leicester, are thinking the same thing. “As a team we are about winning inches,” McFarland said last weekend after their last-minute defeat to Connacht. “We had a couple of guys who soaked inches and it cost us.”

Then he paused for dramatic effect before delivering his killer line.

“We won’t have a problem fixing that.”

You shouldn’t bet against him. After all, he’s addressed bigger issues than this. And so have Ulster.

More stories from Garry Doyle

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