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Dublin: 4 °C Wednesday 27 March, 2019

'They're at a different stage to where we are': Ulster endure another difficult night

Dan McFarland’s side slip down to fifth in Conference B.

Ryan Bailey reports from the RDS 

ULSTER HAVE NOW gone nine inter-pro games away from home without victory, and at no point in Dublin last night did Dan McFarland’s side look like ending that barren run.

Overmatched in almost every department by Leinster, the northern province were corralled inside their own 22 for much of the evening as they slumped to a heavy six-try defeat, their second in a week after coming off second best in Galway last time out.

Johnny McPhillips dejected after conceding It was another difficult night for Ulster. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

You could hardly blame McFarland for wrapping his frontline internationals in cotton wool and bringing a second-string side full of academy players down south in advance of next weekend’s crunch European showdown against Racing 92 — but it meant the visitors never really stood a chance.

Conceding swathes of possession and territory to Leinster, the youthful Ulster side — which included two debutants off the bench — defended manfully throughout but the relentless pressure was too much to handle, as the hosts exposed the gulf between the provinces.

Leinster’s dominance up front provided the platform for Leo Cullen’s backline to cause damage, as quick and front-foot ball allowed runners from deep to pick holes in the Ulster rearguard. 

Sean Cronin’s first-half brace opened the scoring and although Ulster found a response through Adam McBurney, the concession of a soft third try immediately after, as four tacklers slipped off Conor O’Brien, ended any hopes of a comeback.

The visitors conceded a fourth just before the break and then two more in the second half, as their dreadful record in Dublin continued having beaten Leinster just once in the capital — that win coming back in March 2013.

It means Ulster slip down to fifth place in Conference B having started the day in second behind runaway leaders Leinster, leaving them with much work to do if they are to qualify for the Pro14 play-offs.

“I’m not going to say [the defeat is] inevitable but it’s pretty tough,” McFarland said post-match. “A team like Leinster would cause problems in any league.

“They average 42 points at home a match and we found that out. They’re at a different stage to where we are. They have a really good understanding of what they’re doing and when they’re firing, playing with tempo, getting quick ball, we just couldn’t live with that. That’s a credit to them and their organisation.” 

He continued: “I think the pace of the ball was the key thing. They were pretty sharp, they got in the gaps in between us and it looked as if, even though we were working hard, they were finding spaces.

“Even when we were making decent tackles, the ball resulting from that was quick and putting us under pressure. They weren’t losing the ball, not as often as we were and that was a big difference. We put some good phases together, we looked to play through them with a few offloads, but we weren’t able to finish them off.

“The other thing was, and it was noticeable against Connacht last week, as soon as we put some good play together or got a score, we then put some very bad play together. All the momentum is knocked out of you and it’s almost worse than having not had it all.”

There was no shortage of effort from Ulster, as captain Alan O’Connor, Nick Timoney and Greg Jones all put in big defensive shifts, while former Ireland U20 international James Hume stood out in midfield.

Adam McBurney scores a try Adam McBurney scored Ulster's try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

To their credit, Ulster showed good ambition in the first half and on the few occasions they asked questions of Leinster’s defence, looked dangerous through multi-phase periods of play, notably for the handling of their forwards around the fringes.

There were also senior debuts for Bruce Houston and Caleb Montgomery off the bench, and certainly the experience — much like the humbling at Thomond Park earlier in the season — will stand to Ulster’s younger players in the long run, even if positives are hard to come by now. 

“I want to put a positive spin on that, but that’s what I expect every week,” McFarland said of his side’s fighting spirit.

“We did that against Connacht but we do that every week. We’ll fight for every inch, we’ll play to the end and be strong. We have a battling spirit but that is only going to take us so far. There’s lots to work on.

“We can demonstrate the positive side of things, but it was disappointing to have to make so many changes and have people out of position. Caleb came on in the second-row, Pete Nelson and Bruce Houston playing out of position, that was difficult.”

Injuries to fullback Michael Lowry and looshead Kyle McCall didn’t help matters, either.

Lowry was replaced by Peter Nelson in the first half for a HIA but never returned and McCall suffered what looked like a serious leg injury shortly after the break. 

“It did not look good,” the head coach said of McCall’s injury.

I feel so sorry for Kyle, he was so desperate to start that game. He was out for a long time, the beginning of the season just when he was hungry to fight for his place in that loosehead position, really competitive position for us, and then to suffer what was, I do not want to preempt it, but it did not look good.

McFarland is, however, hopeful of having Jacob Stockdale fit and ready for Ulster’s season-defining game against Racing 92 in Belfast next weekend, as they bid to boost their chances of qualifying for the Champions Cup quarter-finals for the first time in five years.

“We’ll just look at that game, we’ll do our review on Monday, take our learnings and once that’s done, we’ll refocus because we’ve a massive challenge,” he added.

“They’re [Racing] good, they’re really dangerous. The coaches have already done their analysis, we had a lot of players involved in that analysis and we’ll relish that challenge.”

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Ryan Bailey

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