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Ulster 'refocused pretty quickly' after Munster and Toulouse losses as URC prizes beckon

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland says it was difficult to watch Champions Cup quarter-finals and semi-finals after his side’s loss.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland.
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

DAN McFARLAND FOUND himself a rather disgruntled spectator last weekend as he sat down to watch Leinster take on Toulouse in the semi-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup. In an ideal world, he would have been coaching at the Aviva Stadium instead.

He watched as Toulouse finally ran out of steam on Irish soil, the defending European champions torn apart by a peak Leinster performance after only a week prior edging past Munster in a rare penalty shoot-out. It didn’t make the fact that the French side had knocked his own side out in the last-16 in heartbreaking circumstances any easier to stomach.

“I didn’t enjoy quarter-final and semi-final weekend anywhere near as much as I have in previous years. Last year we were involved in quarter-final and semi-final weekend, and in previous years we’ve played on those weekends. They’re some of my favourite weekends of the year and not being involved in them was bad and really disappointing,” he grimaced.

Rather than being involved over the last couple of weeks, Ulster have instead had some time off to rest and reflect on where their season is at, namely the fact that their United Rugby Championship quarter-final destiny lies in their own hands this weekend when they welcome the Cell C Sharks to Kingspan Stadium.

A victory will have Ulster back on home soil for their last-eight tie and, if results elsewhere go their way, potentially there for the semi-final, too. Should they lose then the imposing thought of either a trip to Leinster or potentially South Africa in the knockouts looms, neither of them an inviting prospect.

It’s also been a chance to mentally refresh, too. The gut punch of their late exit to Toulouse in Europe was followed by a tame performance in their inter-provincial clash with Munster at Kingspan Stadium a week later, dashing their hopes of easing to second place, and McFarland insists that is all behind them.

“In terms of the mood in the camp, we refocused pretty quickly,” he continued.

“We were pretty tired the week of the Munster game after travelling to South Africa and then Toulouse, and then the disappointment against Toulouse, but we bounced back. We didn’t play our best rugby but we beat Edinburgh away from home in a titanic struggle that required us to dig deeper than we’ve had to any other time this year. That game gave us a real sense of belief in what we’re capable of and the foundations of our game.”

The foundations worked well at the DAM Health Stadium as Ulster became the first away side to triumph at Edinburgh’s new home last time out, an outstanding defensive performance providing the backbone to a gutsy 16-10 triumph that reinvigorated their home quarter-final hopes.

However, more importantly, it was the shot in the arm they needed after those two devastating weekends. Now, going into the play-offs regardless of where they play, they have that confidence back in their own abilities.

“The foundation of what we do is built on that every inch attitude. When things haven’t gone your way and you haven’t been able to eke out some important results, and we were disgruntled with the officiating in the Stormers game, you’re feeling pressed, you have to look to your foundations and what’s most important to you that everything else is built on,” adds McFarland.

“Those last ten minutes against Edinburgh, who I thought played well in that game, particularly in the second half where they kept us under considerable pressure, we needed everything we had to stop them from winning. It could have gone either way but we were good enough with the defensive set we put in to be able to produce the goods.

“We can stand by that and say look, we do still have that, that is part of who we are.”

Ulster await late fitness tests for captain Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey ahead of Friday’s maiden meeting with the Sharks, the latter of whom will be very important should Springbok centre Lukhanyo Am indeed be available for the visitors, but it should be a fascinating encounter either way.

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Not only are the province going for home advantage in the knockouts, but so are the Sharks. Currently occupying third in the URC table and knowing that a win in Belfast, plus a Leinster win over Munster on Saturday, would have them home in both the quarters and semis, Sean Everitt’s men have no lack of motivation.

“It’s fair to say it’s a very important game. We’re both qualified for the quarter-finals, we’re both qualified for Europe but the prize is the home quarter-final, and it goes to the winner. That has a huge impact for both teams, I’m sure,” states McFarland.

“For us it’s about wanting to play at home in front of our fans. It makes it a very important game and one we’re really looking forward to.”

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