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'Are we a better team than Leinster? Are we good enough? We can do it, definitely'

Dan McFarland and Ulster’s attention switched to the RDS immediately after last night’s win over Munster.

Updated Jan 3rd 2021, 5:00 PM

HAVING WATCHED HIS side just about grind past Munster at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening, Dan McFarland will no doubt have taken a keen interest in goings on at the RDS Arena shortly afterwards.

dan-mcfarland Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He will have watched with a grin on his face as Connacht raced into a 25-5 lead at the interval. He may have even let out a cheer when Tom Daly intercepted and ran under the posts to rubber-stamp the win. And perhaps there would have been a slight grimace as Ed Byrne wriggled over to rescue a point at the death.

Amazingly, Ulster are now the only unbeaten side left in the Pro14 after Connacht’s heroics came just a couple of hours after the northern province had ended the third unbeaten run coming into the weekend, that of Munster, and they now have renewed hope that the Pro14 final is well within their reach.

That’s because Conference A now takes on a much more interesting look. Even though they were seven points adrift of Ulster coming into the weekend, Leinster were still in the driving seat given they had two games in hand and were notching bonus points in every game with ease.

Now, ten points behind, it’s anybody’s game.

And, of course, just to add an extra layer to the drama that is sure to ensue over the final few months of the shortened campaign, the two sides go head-to-head in Dublin on Friday with what should be two full-strength teams at their disposal knowing that the head-to-heads they have may be the decider between who goes to the Pro14 final and who misses out.

“We’ve played ten games, we’ve still got six left to play. There’s plenty of opportunities to not be in position for that top spot,” warned McFarland.

“But I think in terms of the entertainment value and the competition, there’s an added interest to (next week’s game), for (the media), the supporters and certainly for us in our preparation.

“If we could win down there, then we’ll put ourselves in a really good position for kicking on. If we don’t, it’s taken out of our hands. They’ve more bonus points than us.”

While Leinster have a try bonus point in every game they’ve played this season in the Pro14, Ulster have just six from 10. Because of that, Leo Cullen’s men could still draw level at the top if they win their two games in hand despite having lost one compared to Ulster’s none.

That is perhaps why there was an air of frustration around Kingspan Stadium on Saturday night. Even though he didn’t admit it, McFarland will no doubt be wondering just how his side ran in two tries in the opening 17 minutes and then proceeded to be held to three points for the remaining 63.

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Admittedly, they came up against a Munster outfit who put in a stubborn defensive display, and the bitterly cold conditions didn’t lend themselves to fluid, running rugby. But for a team with genuine aspirations of reaching a second consecutive Pro14 final, that won’t fly.

“You’ve got to remember that these guys are playing at a very high elite level. The difference between getting it right and getting it wrong is very small,” was the former Connacht prop’s explanation.

“You have to take into account the opponents that you’re playing against. If you’re under pressure because of the way the opposition are playing, then you make errors. We got reefed twice in the first 20 minutes. That was poor. But you’ve got to think about the opposition.
“There were a couple of passes on the edge that we could have done better, we got run into touch twice which is unacceptable, or kicked it into touch once, you can’t give the ball away like that.

“That’s something we need to refocus on and really understand that against teams that are determined and in your face then your precision has to be on. You have to take your opportunities when you get them.”

iain-henderson-speaks-to-his-team-after-the-game Ulster huddle after last night's win over Munster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Of course, there’s no place that applies to more than the RDS Arena and, facing a wounded Leinster side that will welcome back the majority of their Ireland contingent, those unforced errors need ironed out fast.

But ultimately the overriding emotion is one of excitement for this Ulster squad as they aim to right several wrongs and silence their doubters. They have a point to prove after September’s Pro14 final defeat at the Aviva, and the chance to take full control of Conference A next week is one they’ll relish.

“Are we a better team than Leinster? We’d have to beat them at home as well later on so, effectively, over a season, we’d be saying that,” added McFarland.

“Are we good enough? We can do it, definitely. The probability of it? You only have to ask the bookies, have a look at what the odds are next week. They’re normally pretty accurate. They had us at seven points today so not far off. They won’t predict us to win next week, that’s the bottom line.

“Are we capable of winning down there? 100%. What it means is we have to be absolutely on the money, which is better than we were this week. But we knew that anyway. That’s exciting.”

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