Connacht v Glasgow: Dan McFarland primed for Pro 12 semi-final 'crack'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Glasgow assistant coach Dan McFarland
Dan McFarland was born in Oxfordshire but spent 15 years at Connacht as player and coach

Dan McFarland will sit by Gregor Townsend's side at Saturday's Pro 12 semi-final in Galway, the assistant and the head coach of Glasgow Warriors plonked in a box in a corrugated iron area of the Sportsground called the Clan Terrace.

This is where the most raucous Connacht fans hang out. Pat Lam and his coaching staff operate at the other side of the stadium, in a quiet room where they can plot in peace.

The visitors - and it's entirely deliberate - have to work amid a racket. "Oh, they make a lot of noise and they bang on the side of the box and shout and roar," says McFarland. "It's great fun."

McFarland should know because for the longest time he was part of this scene, as Connacht as any Englishman can possibly be.

He replaced Shade Munro in the Glasgow set-up in the summer, but for 15 years McFarland was a driving force at the home of Irish rugby's perennial underdog, a dog that this season has bitten back in a major way.

He was a Connacht prop from 2000 to 2006. He was only the second player in their history to play 100 times for the province. Then he was Connacht forwards coach, then assistant coach. He was on the coaching ticket with the Ireland Under-20s and the Emerging Ireland side. His son, Thomas, was born in Galway. Some of the best years of his life were spent out west.

"I love the people and the place," says McFarland. "When we went there a few weeks ago for the last match of the regular season, everybody was very welcoming. But I know when there's a lion waiting in the long grass for me. When we were shaking paws it was ready to bite me - and it did."

Glasgow flanker Chris Fusaro (right) runs at the Connacht defence when the sides met at Scotstoun in September
Glasgow won 33-32 at Scotstoun in September but lost 14-7 in Galway two weeks ago

Connacht won that game 14-7. Now comes the semi-final in the same sell-out venue.

"It was hard losing. I came home and the weird thing about it was that in the first 24 hours afterwards I was more upset about losing that game than losing any other game in the year.

"We were still in the semi-final, but I was gutted. That feeling demonstrated to me how sucked into the Warriors environment I've been even though it's only been a year. It hurt that much. It was pleasing that it hurt so badly."

Connacht 'characterised by resilience'

McFarland's history with Connacht goes deep, not just in terms of years but in terms of what happened in those years.

At the end of 2002, during his second season, rumours started circulating in Ireland that the IRFU were about to put Connacht to sleep, that they couldn't afford four teams any longer and that the western province were going to be shut down.

Dan McFarland is tackled by two Edinburgh players in 2004
McFarland was a hard-nosed prop with Connacht for six years before joining their coaching staff

McFarland was the Connacht players' representative at the time. In January 2003, a newspaper report effectively brought confirmation that it was all over. That was the way it was done back then. Players found out their fate in a story in the Irish Independent, the source of which was a high-ranking IRFU official.

"I'd been at Richmond when they went bust a few years earlier and I'd learned a few lessons about that experience. I wanted to fight. Everybody stood up."

The public got engaged, the politicians came on board, there was a counter-attack on the IRFU from Connacht about the financial wastefulness in the union.

A story was leaked about an upcoming Six Nations trip to Italy where the IRFU had booked 83 rooms for three nights in one of the city's finest hotels. 'If they want to save money, how is that justifiable?' That was the message from the war cabinet in Connacht. And it put the blazers on the back foot.

"We had a march on the IRFU office in Dublin. I was at it, all the players were. We were told that we shouldn't be up the front when the IRFU came to the door to collect the petition because we'd end up on RTE, so we kinda stayed around the back of it.

"Everybody met in the pub beforehand and by the time the 2000 of us were standing outside Lansdowne Road there was little bit of anger there.

"I love the fact that I played for a team that people looked down on and that I went out and helped fight our corner. We had a group of people at Connacht who really felt they were being put-upon.

Connacht's Pro 12 finishes - 2004-2016
9th, 11th, 11th, 11th, 12th, 12th, 12th, 9th, 8th, 8th, 10th, 7th,*2nd

"People in the west of Ireland are characterised by resilience. Call it grit if you like, it's a funky word in sports psychology these days. When something comes at you, you always respond. If it's hard, you come back, you take a knock and you get back up again. It's very difficult to defeat an opponent that refuses to lie down."

'Pounding the rock'

Connacht's campaign earned a reprieve- and they have slowly built from there, McFarland at the heart of it until last summer when he swapped Galway for Glasgow.

He mentions a conversation he had with Glasgow's defence coach, Matt Taylor, recently. Taylor was talking about something he'd read about the San Antonio Spurs basketball team and a widely-used phrase they use called 'pounding the rock'.

"Think about this enormous rock and you have a sledgehammer and you're pounding away at it and after each blow you get little chips coming off the rock but the effect, visibly, is not huge. If you're willing to keep pounding then you're going to get a result, the more you pound the more stress you will cause the rock and at some point that rock just breaks.

Connacht coach Pat Lam and Glasgow counterpart Gregor Townsend
Connacht coach Pat Lam and Glasgow counterpart Gregor Townsend both have their eyes on the Pro12 trophy

"Pat Lam was pounding the rock at Connacht, so was Eric Elwood before him and Michael Bradley and Steph Nel, who was coach when I joined. They understood that if they kept doing what they really believed in then they were going to have success. Pounding the rock. You see the results today."

This is part of why so many people see a lot of Glasgow in Connacht, because Glasgow pounded the rock themselves for many years and eventually it broke on that memorable day in Belfast last year when they became Pro 12 champions.

McFarland worked with Connacht coach Pat Lam, for two happy years, until his move to Glasgow, a decision he made because he wanted to test himself in a whole new environment.

"It was an opportunity to come to a club that has followed a similar path to Connacht, from underdogs to developing a really good culture."

'It'll be great crack'

And now, in this semi-final, new club meets old back in his former home in Galway. Was he surprised by Connacht's victory over Glasgow the last time? "No. I was involved in games with Connacht over the years when they demonstrated exactly the same stuff, the same physicality.

"We learned lessons from the Sportsground. Discipline is a big one. We've got to make sure we are controlled in what we are doing and that we don't give them a chance to get into positions where they can use their strengths. We can improve on the collision area. We need to negate them there.

"We're going up against a group of players who are used to digging deep and fighting. They have a history of that. So do we."

The weather, he says, will be mixed. A little bit dry, a little bit wet, a little bit of everything during the course of the afternoon. Unpredictable, in other words. A bit like the outcome. It's hard to think of Saturday without that image of a man pounding a rock springing to mind.

Hopefully it'll be a day for artistry. Unquestionably it'll be a day for physicality. Above all, perhaps, it'll be a day for mentality, a game between two teams that are so hard to break.

"It'll be great crack," says McFarland. Amid so much uncertainty, that's the one guarantee.