A NUMBER of Ulster’s coaching and management team will be hoping that Saturday’s trip to Murrayfield for their Guinness PRO14 play-off clash against Edinburgh proves to be a happy homecoming.
Head coach Dan McFarland knows the place well – and regularly attended Edinburgh training sessions there – during his time overseeing the Scotland pack. Forwards coach Roddy Grant spent six seasons as a player at Edinburgh and a further two as one of Richard Cockerill’s assistants before making the switch to Belfast last summer. Chief Executive Jon Petrie was Managing Director at Murrayfield in a previous life. And media manager Stuart Martin was also part of the Edinburgh squad before accepting an offer to join some old colleagues at the Kingspan Stadium last year.
“They’ve nicked plenty of intellect from Edinburgh – nicked the MD, the forwards coach, the head of communications – what else do they want to take from us?” quipped Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill yesterday.
Cockerill has never seen a pot that he hasn’t fancied stirring, but fellow Englishman McFarland has played down the notion that this could give his side an edge during Saturday evening’s PRO14 semi-final clash between the two sides.
“We’ve certainly got a bit of inside information, but most of this is played out on the pitch,” he said. “As much as we as coaches would like to think we’re the geniuses behind the manufacturing of performances in semi-finals, it’s not the case. You don’t really need to have the inside information to know what Edinburgh are about and what they’ve got on the pitch. You’ve got to watch the videos to get that, to go to games and be present there. I’m lucky enough that I have been to games and watched, so the inside information we have maybe helps a little bit but not really.”
During McFarland’s time in Scotland, Edinburgh were perennial under-achievers, and while he dismissed the suggestion that they could be described as ‘basket-cases’ before Cockerill’s arrival in the Scottish capital, he is full of praise for what his fellow Englishman has achieved during the last three and a bit years.
“You could legitimately say that they and Leinster have been the stand-out teams in our competition this year,” he said. “Richard has built a club there based on some strong Scottish internationals, I think they have 20 in their squad, and he has made some non-Scottish qualified signings who have made a major impact in their team. You only have to look at the league table as it stands to see they are a top-quality outfit. Obviously, Leinster are the team to beat but Edinburgh are up there not far behind them.”
“Cockers came in and gave them a very definitive identity. Initially, as is often the case with coaches, the first thing they look at is how are we going to defend? And how are we going to get out of our own half? And be gritty up front, which Cockers was always going to do.
“If you can get those three things right then you have a platform on which you can build. They have recruited and developed some fantastic back-three players. Why would you just stay with a game-plan that’s not going to utilise those strengths? They also have some really good ball-running centres, and a really skilful player in Mark Bennett in the key position of 13. They’re scoring a lot of tries This is not a team grinding out wins, it’s a team that can counterattack against you if you kick loosely. The development of their game has been really impressive.”
Ulster reached the PR014 play-offs last year but came up well short against Glasgow Warriors, and McFarland believes the experience will sharpen the team’s focus this weekend.
“We were knocked over by the first wave [against Glasgow] and then never got back to our feet…well not until it was too late,” he recalled. “Glasgow were excellent in that game and I said at the time that I’m not sure if even us at our best could have won that game, but there was a disappointment we didn’t play as well as we could have done and that really soured that experience for me.
“I know there is a hunger in the squad this year that we want to give it our best shot this weekend. The task in front of us is a difficult one. There’s only ever been two away semi-final wins in the history of the Pro14, both by Scarlets. I know the difficulty of the task but we want to give it a better shot than last year.
“It’s odd in the sense that we’re not in the end of a string of games. However, we talked about it today and all the work that has gone in from tremendous support staff here and the young men who run out on to the pitch week-in, week-out to get us in a position where we do have a semi-final to play – we’re relishing that opportunity we’ve manufactured for ourselves.”