Connacht's Dan McFarland is back at the Sportsground in Galway for his ninth pre-season as coach at the western province. The former prop has recently returned from his stint as head coach of Emerging Ireland whom he guided to the IRB Nations Cup title in Romania.
Dan McFarland, who was assistant coach when the Ireland Under-20s won the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2007, thoroughly enjoyed taking on this latest international role.
"It was a really good experience and very satisfying," he told the Connacht Rugby website. "Obviously, it was very different from what I do day to day with Connacht so even after a long season it was refreshing to take on a new role.
"You are working with different players and different coaches in a pretty intense atmosphere which was great.
"It was intense, not just because we had three games to play in nine days, but also because we tried to create a level of excellence that would allow the players involved to experience an international set-up as close to the senior squad as possible."
McFarland, along with Ulster's Neil Doak, attended training camps with the Argentina-bound Ireland senior squad prior to departing for their own Emerging Ireland's side campaign in Romania.
Armed with a brief from head coach Joe Schmidt, McFarland said it was clear what was expected of him on the development tour.
"Joe was interested in getting a close look at and finding out about players who may come through over the next 12 to 18 months with the upcoming November internationals, Six Nations and obviously the Rugby World Cup all in mind.
"It's no secret that Joe has spoken a lot about the importance of depth in Irish rugby and the Emerging tour formed a part of that thinking with a strict view to the next 12 to 18 months."
The Emerging Ireland squad included players from all four provinces as well as Player of the Tournament Robin Copeland who has recently moved to Munster from Cardiff Blues.
McFarland said the challenge of bringing together 26 players from five different teams was an exciting one, explaining: "We came together on a Friday afternoon and played our first game seven days later. We had a weekend of preparation before flying out and then obviously very short training sessions out there.
"It was so important that we had a clear structure and plan about what we were going to do. That plan was put together with Joe and Les (Kiss) and a lot of what we did was very similar to what the national team were doing in Argentina which enables players to jump up from one squad to the other."
Over the three fixtures, Emerging Ireland averaged nearly 60 points a game but McFarland insists that the opposition offered completely different challenges to what the players would be used to.
"Russia wanted to play rugby, were very physical in what they did and had good attacking systems. Uruguay were incredibly passionate, hard-working and physical in defence and while not a big team, they caused us problems in other areas.
"Romania, who Ireland will face in the World Cup, were extremely big and played a very forwards-oriented kicking game. So, very different challenges out there for us and I think we dealt with each game comfortably.
"When you look at the first game against Russia, we had scored 66 unanswered points in 45 minutes and in terms of being put under pressure rugby wise, there wasn't a lot we could learn from that.
"However, I believe that that result and indeed the other results came as a consequence of the intensity we built around preparation in an extremely short time frame."
McFarland admits he was disappointed that the team leaked a try in the final game with Romania, having prevented their opponents from crossing in the two fixtures before that.
"The defence was very good and the boys worked hard for each other. The back row put in a particularly good stint across the board. We compared some of the stats with back rows tackling in the Six Nations and set challenges for the players which they worked hard to meet."
When tighthead prop Rodney Ah You received a late call-up to the senior Argentinian tour, it was left to second row Michael Kearney to represent Connacht in the Nations Cup tournament along with London Irish-bound centre Eoin Griffin.
McFarland, who has coached Kearney for the last three seasons at Connacht, felt the 24-year-old put in performances he should be proud of.
"Mick did really well, particularly for someone who hadn't been exposed to international rugby at that level before. He had never seen the calling systems or the structures before this tour but he put the head down and was one of the players who didn't make any mistakes.
"He worked extremely hard, was very physical in what he did and showed what he does for us week in week out which I thought was terrific.
"I would hope that Mick and all of the players on tour took a lot from the experience. Going into the new season with their provinces, they should feel invigorated. Hopefully their ambitions to play in a Six Nations or a World Cup with a fantastic Irish team have grown even more."
After a short break, McFarland is now back at the Sportsground where the Connacht squad are into week three of a demanding 10-week pre-season.
He says he is as motivated as ever ahead of the new season with the GUINNESS PRO12 and newly formed European Rugby Challenge Cup to look forward to.
"The planning and the preparation that goes into pre-season is one element of the year and it is really good fun. The weather is a little bit better and you can try out new things," he admitted.
"With new players coming in, you're trying to integrate them into the systems and also blend any new systems with the current squad. It's a very busy time.
"But every year you come in refreshed and full of new determination for the new season. If you work in professional sport, be it as a coach or a player, you have to be able to come in every Monday and be motivated.
"You have to find success. From winning matches right down to the small things, you're always looking for the wins. That's the nature of sport. You want to win at everything you do."
Connacht kick off the new league season with a home game against the Newport Gwent Dragons over the weekend of September 5/6/7. Fixture dates and kick-off times for the PRO12 are to be confirmed before the end of July.
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