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'It wasn't very comfortable for a few minutes' - McFarland pleased despite nervy Ulster finish against Sharks

Ulster secured a home quarter-final with a 24-21 win in Belfast.

Dan McFarland.
Dan McFarland.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

ULSTER HEAD COACH Dan McFarland was happy to reflect on a job completed rather than a job nearly thrown away at Kingspan Stadium as his side booked a home quarter-final in the United Rugby Championship play-offs with a 24-21 win over the Cell C Sharks in Belfast on Friday night.

Tries from Mike Lowry, the superb Stuart McCloskey and his centre partner James Hume – along with a flawless kicking display from John Cooney – got the province over the line and ensured they will be back at Kingspan Stadium in two weeks’ time for their last-eight tie against opponents yet to be determined.

However, that’s not the full story as, having led by 17 points with just over four minutes remaining, Ulster looked home and hosed, only for late scores from Marius Louw and Grant Williams to leave the crowd on edge until Nathan Doak emphatically thumped the ball into touch with the final play.

Ulster now know they will be back on home soil for their last-eight tie in two weeks’ time, while the Sharks will have to travel away for theirs. For the time being, McFarland’s men are up to second in the table which would give them home advantage should they reach the semi-finals too, although they could yet be overtaken by Munster and the DHL Stormers later today.

But despite the nervy finish, which did concern him somewhat, McFarland was more upbeat than perhaps some leaving the ground were, particularly given they kept an opposition containing the likes of Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi scoreless for an hour.

“We had a job to do to get a home quarter-final, it was us or them. We did the job and I thought for a big chunk of that game we controlled it,” said the head coach.

“They showed a bit of brilliance at the end and got back within touching distance, which is a place we found ourselves in earlier in the season (against Clermont), it wasn’t very comfortable for a few minutes. Apart from that I was very pleased.

“They offer a big physical threat but also on a speed and the ability to beat people sense. Their back three is outstanding. Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am, they’ve got two of the best players in the world there. Aphelele Fassi at full-back is unbelievable at beating defenders. It’s very difficult to keep them under control, and I though we did a really good job there.

“We created a lot tonight. In those first 20 minutes our skill let us down but if we were on point to the level we should have been on, to be honest, we should have been even more comfortable than we were. Some of our defensive sets that were called on in the second half, from the 50-minute mark to the 60-minute mark, I thought were outstanding.”

In a game that featured two of the back row that started South Africa’s World Cup final victory almost three years ago featuring at Kingspan Stadium, it was neither Kolisi nor Duane Vermeulen who stood out, rather Ireland international Nick Timoney.

The 26-year-old came up with some crucial turnovers in key areas, in particular one just before the half-time interval as the Sharks pressed in the 22, and put himself about with ball in hand, too, in a man of the match performance that saw him back to his sparkling best after a few quieter performances.

“He was excellent against Edinburgh as well, he made 30 tackles,” pointed out McFarland when asked about his openside flanker.

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billy-burns-celebrates-after-the-game Billy Burns celebrates at full-time. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I was chatting to him before the game about making an impact both sides of the ball and he definitively did that. It’s well within his grasp. He has the physical attributes to do that, he’s a big man and extremely powerful. He’s demonstrated he can have multiple impacts on a game and there’s no reason he can’t do that.

“It’s up to him to make sure he does that and those moments count, as he has in the last couple of games. I don’t see why he can’t be better than that and more imposing and more dominant in games, because he has the physical attributes and the rugby brain to be able to do that.”

Ulster will discover their quarter-final opponents on Saturday evening once the Stormers have faced the Scarlets and Munster have taken on Leinster, with a potential rematch against the Sharks not off the table, and McFarland admits he’s not yet sure if he’ll park himself in front of the TV and watch both games.

“When you’re only really interested in the results, it’s not that much fun,” he grinned. “I suppose I’ll have to because we’re going to be playing one of them. I’ll have to watch the Sharks game two or three times, so I’ll see.

“I’ll watch the Stormers game because Peely’s (Dwayne Peel, former Ulster defence coach) coaching in that. I want them to win.”

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