After a troubled season which saw Les Kiss sacked as director of rugby on January 31 following the failure to qualify for the Champions Cup knockout rounds and then Jono Gibbes’ decision to walk away as head coach at the end of this campaign to return home to New Zealand, Ulster can at last celebrate the promise of much-needed stability in their management structure with the appointment of Englishman McFarland, 46, as head coach for next season on a three-year contract which will run until 2021.
Operations director Bryn Cunningham had said Ulster had secured their number one candidate but McFarland’s contract as Scottish national team forwards coach has a nine-month notice period which will tie him to Gregor Townsend’s management team until the middle of January 2019.
That does not suggest the clean slate and fresh start Ulster were hoping for this summer after a terrible campaign undermined by off-field distractions which also saw them fail to reach the Guinness PRO14 play-offs. Yet there is a hope within the province that McFarland will be released from his SRU contract before the start of the season.
In announcing the departure of the forwards coach, Scotland announced Worcester Warriors head coach Carl Hogg as an interim appointment to work alongside McFarland on this summer’s tour to Canada, USA and Argentina and with just over a year to go until the 2019 World Cup, head coach Townsend will be as keen as Ulster to get a new man in and cut ties with his departing assistant, particularly to an Irish province with the Scots drawn in the same pool as Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in Japan.
Certainly the feat of luring the highly-regarded McFarland away from Scotland 16 months out from a World Cup campaign makes Ulster’s appointment something of a coup.
He has been credited with transforming the Scottish pack, just as he did when Townsend tempted him to leave Connacht and join him at Glasgow Warriors in 2015.
By then McFarland, who retired as a player with Connacht in 2006, had seen his coaching career blossom, his development under Eric Elwood recognised by appointments as both Emerging Ireland and Ireland Wolfhounds head coach for fixtures during his time in the West.
“I am really excited that I will be taking on the Ulster head coach role,” McFarland said. “I know first-hand from my years visiting with Connacht and Glasgow the passion and fervour that makes playing in front of Ulster fans so special.
“It’s a club with a great history and I welcome the challenge of being a part of their future.”
Speaking after Saturday’s 24-24 draw against Munster at Thomond Park, operations director Cunningham declined to reveal the identity of Ulster’s new appointment out of respect for his current employer.
“We have the coach lined up, signed and agreed, our number one candidate, so we’re obviously very happy within Ulster and the IRFU,” Cunningham said at the weekend. “Unfortunately, we’ll not be in a position to announce that for potentially another few weeks.
“As a group, we’re obviously happy that that’s been put to bed because it was a big thing for us. At this stage of the season with everything going on, it was really important that we got a bit of solidity around what’s going on with Ulster next season and for the next few years.”
Describing Ulster’s successful hunt for a head coach, Cunningham added: “By and large you are just out there trying to find who is the best candidate and once we whittled down through the list there was one strong candidate for us right now and for where we need to go in the immediate future. Through a fair bit of negotiation and work in the background we were able to attain that so obviously we are very happy with that.”
Less than 48 hours later Cunningham said: “Dan was our number one candidate so we’re obviously very happy to have secured his services for the next three years. Dan’s CV is hugely impressive and he commands great respect within the game. He enjoyed successful spells with Connacht and Glasgow, and the fact Gregor brought him into the Scotland set-up speaks volumes for how highly he rates him.
“Our priority in this process was to identify and recruit the best possible candidate first and foremost.
“With the confirmation of Dan’s appointment, we will be announcing at least one further addition to the coaching team in the near future to ensure that we have a strong unit in place in advance of pre-season.”