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First quarter-final since 2014 is major achievement for Ulster boss McFarland

Yesterday’s comeback win against Leicester saw Ulster secure knock-out rugby in Europe.

Murray Kinsella reports from Welford Road

MID-WAY THROUGH his post-match interview, with journalists huddled around him, their dictaphones stretching out to catch his words, Dan McFarland paused as he looked towards the back of the media room at Welford Road.

The Ulster head coach’s eyes narrowed and a look of appreciation came over his face.

“Sorry, I’m looking at Munster on the TV. That is fantastic mauling.”

Ever the rugby anorak and a man who does indeed love a good maul, McFarland has been a breath of fresh air in Ulster this season with his technical coaching and positive mindset.

Robert Baloucoune scores a try Robert Baloucoune crosses for an Ulster try. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Most important, the former Connacht forwards coach has now brought about an impressive outcome for Ulster in Europe, with five wins in six games bringing them out of Pool 4 as runners-up and into their first Heineken Cup quarter-final in five years.

Few expected Ulster to emerge from a group also containing Racing 92, Scarlets and Leicester. But McFarland saw it as an enjoyable challenge and, after yesterday’s 14-13 comeback win away to the Tigers, he can take great satisfaction from a job well done in Europe – with at least one more big day to come.

“In the changing room sometimes we have a bit of a chat about how we played, but not really this week other than to say that the second-half performance showed everything about what we are,” said McFarland his side had come back from 13-0 down to win.

“We had to turn around the game. I thought in all honesty in the first half we were not even close to where we are capable of playing, not even close.

“In the second half we turned that around to a large extent, some of our defence in the second half was magnificent, absolutely magnificent.

“Key in the first half was the fact we were giving the ball away. We were giving the ball away because we weren’t physical enough at the breakdown. That’s in large part due to the physicality that Leicester showed.

“That caught us unawares, we’re not used to struggling at the breakdown. We’re an extremely good side at the breakdown, we produce quick ball which is absolutely key to the way we play but they stopped that and it’s a credit to them for that.

“At half time that was the big focus, perhaps the only focus. As you could see, it’s not that we sped the ball up at the breakdown massively.

Rory Best speaks to the team after the game Rory Best speaks to his team-mates post-match. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“But, because we had a focus there we managed to retain the ball and by retaining the ball we were able to exert some pressure and score some tries.”

Ulster did so through tighthead prop Marty Moore, who snuck over from a close-range maul, and right wing Robert Baloucoune, who gathered in out-half Billy Burns’ clever chip kick to score.

With replacement scrum-half John Cooney converting both tries, Ulster edged in front and then show major defensive resilience to see out the win that brought them knock-out rugby.

The victory demonstrated that Ulster possess composure and character when they are needed most, but McFarland wasn’t surprised.

“It doesn’t show me anything new. I knew that already, they demonstrated that time and time again this year.

“They’re a tight bunch, they work really hard. Every inch matters to them and that was manifested in the scramble defence.

“There was a couple of times in that second half when they got in behind us and honestly the attitude of the lads and the determination to fly back and realign had [defence coach] Jared [Payne] next to me bouncing in his seat.

“Ideally I don’t want to be watching defence but I love it when Jared gets excited. It was a testament to their attitude.”

Dan McFarland during the post match press conference McFarland has guided Ulster back into the knock-out stages of Europe. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Ulster now await the results of Sunday’s closing Pool 1 games – Leinster away to Wasps and Toulouse at home to Bath – for confirmation of their quarter-final opposition.

That quarter-final will likely involve a trip either to Racing or a shorter journey down the road to take on Leinster.

“In all honesty at the minute I don’t mind,” said McFarland when asked which his preference would be.

“We’re in a quarter-final, any of those sides is going to be really tough. We’re going away from home, we’re going to play one of the four best sides in Europe as it stands at the moment.

“I think play-off football is where you want to be. If you want to put yourself into a position where you’re challenging for championships, then you’ve got to be playing play-off football and you’ve got to be doing it regularly.

“I looked at what people said, I don’t know if they described it as a group of death but they certainly described it as probably the hardest group and we’ve come out of it with five wins.

“In terms of what we’ve done this year, it is a credit to the players who have been out there and the other coaches that we’re in the position we are.”

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Murray Kinsella

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