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McFarland hails 'amazing stuff' as Ulster empty the tank to beat Racing

While Jacob Stockdale grabbed the headlines, his pack had to dig good and deep to deny Racing a comeback win.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Sean Farrell reports from Kingspan Stadium

FOR AROUND 15 of the final 20 minutes of Ulster’s sensational 26-22 win over Racing 92, there was reason to fear the worst.

A sense approaching inevitability took hold after the Ciel et Blanc whittled away at a 13-point deficit for the second time. Once they took the gloves off, and stripped their gameplan down to its simplest form, it was difficult to see where they could be stopped.

Ulster were out on their feet after Brice Dulin ran in Racing’s third try and when Leone Nakarawa and Antonie Claasen offloads created a path for Olivier Klemenczak, the one-point cushion appeared far too thin to keep this season’s tournament pace-setters at bay.

Somehow, from somewhere, the home side managed to carry on tackling and bouncing up for more. In all, Ulster put 206 tackles on the board. The relentless Eric O’Sullivan contributed 20 of them, constant man-of-the-match contender Marcell Coetzee topped the charts with 22 while Jordi Murphy added 18 hits for good measure. But there were serious efforts all over the field.

“There are a lot of tired bodies in there,” said head coach Dan McFarland, “but why wouldn’t there be?

“When you spend a lot of that second half chasing around Leone Nakarawa, (Virimi) Vakatawa and Finn Russell creating stuff from nothing, that is hard work.

But there is never a moment in the game that you would look at our fellas and say they are not going to try. It is always hard work. That was never going to be a problem. The only problem was how good they were and, jeez, it was amazing stuff.”

“In the context of who we were playing against, the excitement of the rugby out there, some of the execution of the plays our guys, yip that would be up there.

“I have got to say when you add into that the atmosphere, wow! It was awesome.”

McFarland has adopted a steely gaze at times this season when Pro14 results and performances left a little to be desired. In Europe, however, they have hit their stride and yesterday’s upset win over last year’s runners-up came despite the absence of key core personnel.

Iain Henderson is out injured, yet Ulster stood up to an immensely physical pack from Paris. They made their own luck: scrum-half John Cooney’s back complaint brought Dave Shanahan into the starter’s berth and the extra tempo he brought worked to Ulster’s advantage. With no Cooney, Will Addison was called onto kicking duty and the only issue was how he timed his shot rather than how accurate they were. Robert Baloucoune was thrown in at the deep end for a first European start and was touching down a try within five minutes.

That one was particularly satisfying for McFarland, because the slick left to right move came out of the coach’s room.

“The execution of everybody involved in that try plus the construction of it with the attack leaders and (backs coach) Dwayne Peel at the beginning of the week.

“It was an area when we sat down and analysed them and we thought we could hit them in the middle. And, if we had quick ball, if we flashed it to the edge we thought we could catch them. For Dwayne that is very satisfying and so it should be, as it was really well thought out and really well executed.

Robert Baloucoune scores a try Baloucoune dives in to open the scoring. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Robert is so laid back,” adds the head coach of his young flyer from Fermanagh, “you just say go out there and we want to see the you with the ball in your hands. I actually said that at half time: ‘goodness me look at the wingers we have got, let’s make sure we get the ball to the edge’.

“Because at half time we felt we did not get the ball to the edge enough and you see what we can do when we do get the ball there.

We are actually pretty blessed with some pretty good wingers. So Robert did a really good job against guys likes (Simon) Zebo and (Juan) Imhoff on the wings.”

McFarland adds: “I think the way that we want to play, we want to enjoy it. We want to play with a collective speed where you can enjoy the play.

“Ultimately, that’s what rugby is about. It’s no fun if you feel isolated. If you feel part of it, part of a group, with one aim it’s more more enjoyable. Hopefully that’s what they feel, that they’re part of a team that’s going to win or lose together.”

The task now for bodies young and old is to ice themselves up and get set to face Leicester in Welford Road. Even if qualification is secured before next Saturday’s 15.15 kick-off, this tournament’s seeding structure means there is value to be found with a win.

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Sean Farrell

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