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Ulster boss McFarland: 'I wouldn't consider us a top-eight team. We're definitely not there yet'

The head coach doesn’t see Ulster as one of Europe’s top-eight teams despite their promising position to qualify for the quarter-finals.

Dan McFarland before yesterday's game.
Dan McFarland before yesterday's game.

HEADING INTO THEIR game against Harlequins on Saturday, there was an honesty among the Ulster players about how they’re tasked with challenging each other as much as possible.

That means picking out your peers’ mistakes in the Monday video review and explaining what they did wrong. Fighting for every inch, to coin a repetitive phrase from the team room, in each training session and each game. Not settling to be a bit part player and pushing the man in front of you.

But head coach Dan McFarland took that honesty to a new level following Saturday’s game at Kingspan Stadium by quite bluntly offering the assessment that his side are not one of Europe’s top-eight teams at this very moment.

While it’s true that Ulster were far from their best in the Heineken Champions Cup meeting in Belfast, needing a last-gasp John Cooney penalty to snatch a 25-24 win over the English side, the overlying facts say that this has been a positive season so far.

They’ve won eight out of their opening ten games, are unbeaten in Europe through three and sit top of Pool Three in the Champions Cup, while also inheriting second place in Conference A of the Guinness Pro 14. And Saturday’s game was a timely reminder that they can grind out wins when their backs are against the wall.

But despite being well on track for a spot in the quarter-finals, McFarland’s outlook on his own team was a lot bleaker than anticipated.

“Perhaps over the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of nice things said about us in the press, but that makes me slightly nervous because I don’t see us as good as that,” offered the former Connacht prop.

I see us as a team that can grind out wins but is still in the process of becoming a consistently good team. That’s what I want to be. We’re not consistent.

“I’m not complaining about that, I actually don’t think we should be consistent yet. We’re on a journey and we’ve got a fair way to go before we become consistently good.”

dan-mcfarland-speaks-to-the-media-after-the-game In the press conference. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The journey is now a year-and-a-half old and the difference between Ulster pre-McFarland and now is, as centre Stuart McCloskey put it, “night and day”. Last season they saw tangible improvement with knockout appearances both domestically and in the league, this year they have tangible proof of progression through wins on the board.

Their defence has been remarkably stingy, restricting teams to 17 points or less in seven of their ten games so far this season, a testament to the hard work done by former Ireland centre Jared Payne, and it’s undeniable they have the hallmark of champion teams of being able to win games they probably shouldn’t have.

What the head coach does say rings true, however. Ulster are yet to put an 80-minute performance together in their opening ten games and have squeezed out narrow wins on a slightly too often basis – as a measly +8 points difference in the Champions Cup suggests.

“I wouldn’t consider us a top-eight team,” repeats the head coach, who is in his second year in charge in Belfast after taking over last summer.

I would consider us as being capable of being a top-eight team. But we have to be on the top of our game and perhaps get a bit of luck along the way to think about quarter-finals about being a consistent thing. We’re definitely not there yet.

“It’s not that we’re not at top-eight level. We’ve demonstrated we can compete at that. What I’m talking about is being consistently at that.

“So if you roll three or four teams off your tongue when someone asks who the quarter-finalists will be, we’re not one of them. We’re not. That’s the bottom line. Leinster, you could place a lot of money on them being in the quarter-finals. For us, you might have a wager. But you wouldn’t put your house on that.

“The players are definitely aware of that. It’s a journey we’re on – that’s a cliche but it’s true.”

dan-mcfarland-and-sean-reidy With Sean Reidy. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As for the benchmark that his side aspire to, McFarland is looking close to home. They don’t want to emulate their provincial cousins exactly, of course, but the kind of success that the side a couple of hours down the road have achieved is where he wants to see his side.

“Those teams that are consistently competing for championships. The likes of Leinster and Saracens,” McFarland says when asked which teams are better than his own side now.

“In terms of facing the challenges of playing teams like Bath, Harlequins and Clermont in the pool stages, this is a massive task. And we’ve been reminded three games in a row. Going into next week we’ll have to reassess where we’re at and make sure we do the fundamentals of the game right.

“If we play like we played tonight over at The Stoop we haven’t got a chance of winning. I genuinely believe that. We have to be a whole heap better than that to even countenance a win.”

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