Dan McFarland regards Richard Cockerill among one of his rugby heroes and the ex-prop relishes memories of front-row battles with the former Leicester and England hooker in the late 1990s.
McFarland was at Richmond, then in the English top flight, and had a few games against the great Tigers team of that era and while many erstwhile opponents have described facing Cockerill on the pitch as a pretty uncomfortable experience to put it mildly, the Ulster coach smiles and says: “I really enjoyed it.
“I would only have been a young fella then, he’s a lot older than me,” he added. At 48 he is in fact just a year younger than his counterpart in Saturday evening’s Guinness Pro14 semi-final between their two teams at BT Murrayfield.
“I wouldn’t have been anywhere near the stature of him and his cohorts,” McFarland continued. “To the point I’m not sure Cockers would remember playing against me.
“I do remember playing against them, at Welford Road on a number of occasions and at Richmond at the Athletic Ground there. I think my favourite game against them was the quarter-final of the Tetley Bitter Cup when we beat them at Reading [in February 1999, before losing to Newcastle Falcons in the semi-finals, who in turn lost to Wasps in the final].
“I really enjoyed playing in that game. Against what basically would have been heroes of mine as I was watching rugby. When I say it wasn’t horrible I’m not saying it wasn’t tough. By God it was tough. But it was a fantastic experience.”
McFarland left south-west London not long after that match as Richmond, and co-tenants of the Athletic Ground London Scottish faced financial difficulties and a plunge back into amateurism, and left for France where he played for Stade Francais.
He eventually ended up in the west of Ireland playing for Connacht where he transitioned from playing to coaching, earning recognition for his work with Ireland under-20s, Emerging Ireland and the international ‘A’ team Irish Wolfhounds before becoming head coach at Connacht. He spent three years in Scotland, replacing Shade Munro as Glasgow Warriors forwards coach before following Gregor Townsend to the national set-up. Ulster came calling a year later.
McFarland isn’t the only Scottish link at the Irish province as managing director Jonny Petrie crossed the Irish Sea to become Ulster chief executive, joined by Edinburgh assistant coach Roddy Grant.
The Englishman doesn’t believe it brings any extra insight into Saturday’s match.
“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,” he said. “You don’t really need to have the inside information to know what Edinburgh are about and what they’ve got on the pitch. The inside information we have maybe helps a little bit but not really.”
For his part, Cockerill said: “Roddy was my assistant and forwards coach for two years. And Dan was Scotland forwards coach who sat in at our meetings and watched many of our training sessions so he knows what is coming.
“It doesn’t take a genius to work out what is coming from a team I coach. They are good guys, they have players and are a good club. There is a lot to like about Ulster rugby. They have 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? Dan is a good English coach like myself so let’s get into it.”
McFarland was happy to keep the mutual appreciation society going. “Oh look, excellent,” he said when asked to assess the strides made by Edinburgh under Cockerill. “You could legitimately say they and Leinster have been the stand-out teams in our competition this year.” Changed days from when McFarland was in Scotland before Cockerill got a grip of the underperforming capital side.
“I never really thought of Edinburgh as a basket case,” he said. “Before Cockers came in there was a bit of discovering their own identity and what they wanted to be. As with everything that’s always a journey. There were good steps made and then Cockers came in and gave them a very definitive identity.”
One disappointment of Cockerill’s tenure has been the record in knock-out games. Four defeats, including three at home, in the Challenge Cup to Cardiff and La Rochelle, away to Munster in the Pro14 quarter-finals and the same side at home in the Heineken Champions Cup last eight.
“It’s time for us to step up,” said the Edinburgh coach.
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