''The feeling at the end of the game is an odd one' - McFarland not a fan of two-legged European ties

Ulster must do battle with Toulouse again in their bid to progress to the last eight of the Heineken Champions Cup.

Toulouse's Rynhardt Elstadt and Duane Vermeulen of Ulster after the game.
Toulouse's Rynhardt Elstadt and Duane Vermeulen of Ulster after the game.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT’S NOT MASSIVELY surprising to hear Ulster head coach Dan McFarland claim he’s not a fan of the two-legged European knockout system given that, were it not in place, his side would be Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finalists already.

After their 26-20 win in Toulouse over the defending European champions last week, rather than going through, the two sides have to do it all over again at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday to determine which side progresses to the last-eight instead, and McFarland admits he’s not a massive fan of the schedule.

“I quite like the idea of the six pool games and then one knockout match (per round),” opined the former Connacht prop.

“I get it. It does add an interesting dynamic. But I read another coach who said the feeling at the end of the game is an odd one. You don’t have the normal elation or despondency that you would in normal games. It’s very different.

“Whether I don’t like it as much because it is different and we’re adverse to a bit of a change, or whether it’s just the fact I prefer you’re a winner or a loser at the end of 80 minutes, I don’t know.”

However he feels, McFarland has no say in the matter. Rather than basking in the glory of a quarter-final place, they have a six-point lead to defend in Belfast on Saturday against a side who will have a fire lit under them after their perceived injustice from last Saturday’s first-leg.

While there were no complaints with a red card handed out to winger Juan Cruz Mallia for a particularly nasty mid-air collision with Ben Moxham, Matthis Lebel’s disallowed try drew ire from the sell-out crowd at the Stadium de Toulouse, while the third try of Robert Baloucoune’s hat-trick had Ugo Mola flailing his arms around in anger that the Ireland winger wasn’t called offside.

But even were it not for those incidents, preparing to play the same team twice in a row presents its own unique challenges that teams so rarely face in rugby. For instance, how much will either team change things up to keep their opponent guessing while, equally, not losing their consistency of performance? Or will they back their fundamentals to get the job done, despite knowing their opponents have the measure of them from game one?

“Generally speaking teams will have a way that they play. Obviously small things within that will change, such as set piece launches or small tactics around phase play or defence. But generally speaking teams won’t change a massive amount,” believes McFarland.

“Why? Because if you get to the level you’re at now, you’ve been successful with the things you do week in, week out. The more you change, the more moving parts there are to get right, and that can be a limiting factor.

“We’ll have changed small things around launch plays or our phase play, we’ll try to improve in areas around our defence but that’ll be more to do with our system work. I would expect similar things from them. I wouldn’t expect Toulouse to come and say we’re not going to offload this week or we’re not going to counter-ruck you this week, or we’re not going to try and maul and scrum you with our enormous people.

“They had some good launch plays that put us under pressure, so I imagine they’ll be looking for similar plays this week but with a bit of variety from last week.”

With the carrot of a first home European quarter-final since 2014 on offer, though, McFarland is not worried about his side’s preparation and he is eagerly preparing for a game that, under the floodlights at Kingspan Stadium, could produce fireworks.

“The rewards are such at the end of it, and the goal is so big that the emotional side of things look after themselves. We have to be very focused on what we’re trying to achieve – that’s being clear on who we are, what we’re about, improvements we’ve got to make,” added the English coach.

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“There’s no need to remind guys that it’s a European knockout game with a home quarter-final at stake against a massive opposition. The emotion will be there, and emotion is important in rugby. It’s a sport that does well with passion because of the physicality of the game. It’s not something that necessarily needs to be driven in a week like this.

“They’re the European champions, they’re the Top 14 champions and we played a helter-skelter game against them last week. We did a lot of things well and we ended up winning, but I’m sure this week will be equally tough and probably even tougher.

“The task is huge but the reward is huge as well, and we’ll be ready for it.”

In the final episode of the series, The Front Row – The42’s new rugby podcast in partnership with Guinness – welcomes comedian Killian Sundermann in to studio. The online funnyman fills us in on his schools rugby days, gaining recognition during the pandemic, making his stand-up debut and travelling around Europe in a van. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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