Ulster's European exit 'lights a fire under' Marty Moore and Co

‘It’s frustrating but it’s not devastating,’ the tighthead prop says.

Marty Moore has missed just six games this campaign.
Marty Moore has missed just six games this campaign.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

NATURALLY, BEING KNOCKED out of Europe brings with it a range of emotions, particularly when you’ve been eliminated by the razor-thin margin of just a point after two utterly enthralling legs of rugby against the defending champions.

Frustration. Pride. Anger. Invigoration. All of those emotions have swept over Marty Moore in the aftermath of Ulster’s Heineken Champions Cup last-16 second-leg defeat to Toulouse at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, all in equal measure and, at points, all at once.

“As devastating as it is in the moment, when we look at the performances, it’s not disheartening, it doesn’t weigh on the squad in that regard. It just breeds a bit more hunger in the squad,” says the tighthead prop.

“We’re good enough to beat the big sides, we just haven’t got the result. It’s not like we’ve been beaten off the field or we’ve under-performed hugely, there are a lot of positive things there.

“It is frustrating but it’s not disheartening. It has the opposite effect, actually, it lights a fire under you a bit that we’re close to what we want to do – very close – and playing some good rugby.”

Indeed, Ulster can reflect on a period of growth since their return to action since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. One of their first games back was a Champions Cup quarter-final away to Toulouse in which they were soundly beaten 36-8 at the Stade Ernest-Wallon. When they were drawn against each other in the pool stages again last season, the margin of defeat in Belfast was 29-22.

It says much of how far this squad has come that it took Tom O’Toole’s red card for Toulouse to finally secure a 30-23 win on this occasion at Kingspan Stadium and, even more than that, it was Ulster themselves who came away from the Stadium de Toulouse a week prior with a 26-20 victory of their own.

And yet that makes the situation all the more agonising, too, as Moore is at pains to point out. When they were knocked out by Toulouse on that summer day nearly two years ago, there was a feeling that they were never genuine contenders despite reaching the last-eight – that was certainly not the case this time around.

“That was probably as big a disappointment as we’ve had since I’ve been part of the squad here at Ulster. We’re good enough to have pushed on the tournament,” added the 31-year-old with a grimace.

“A couple of years ago when we lost in the quarter-finals, we were outclassed on the day and didn’t have much more to give, whereas at the weekend we only had ourselves to blame, and the week before we didn’t put enough distance between us and them. We kinda had a lot more to do in that tournament.

“But it narrows our focus, we have only one objective now as a team for the remainder of the season. Games don’t get any tastier than an inter-pro at home against Munster. It’s a quick turnaround and I’m pretty happy it is. We’ll throw ourselves back into the thick of it.”

With just seven points separating Ulster in second and the Vodacom Bulls in eighth in the United Rugby Championship, any slip-up can be costly, particularly with Munster also gunning for that top-two spot that guarantees home advantage in the quarter-finals and semi-finals as well ahead of what should be a full-blooded inter-pro.

With the league now the province’s sole focus, it now provides the barometer of a successful season, and they have second place within their grasp if they can win their last three fixtures against Munster, Edinburgh and the Cell C Sharks.

Interestingly, though, Moore concedes that the home advantage isn’t Ulster’s primary focus as they go into the business end of the season, rather revealing they are concentrating more on ensuring they are in the best place possible heading into the knockouts from a performance aspect of things, regardless of who or where they play.

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“It’s about keeping up the continuity of winning and taking some momentum into the play-offs when we get there. A happy coincidence would be those home games, but the main focus is the momentum and the performances. It’ll be great if we can pull that off and have a quarter-final (at home),” he revealed.

Moore, as per usual, will be at the centre of Ulster’s push for the play-offs, as he has been all season. The tighthead has missed just six games this campaign – and has started the province’s last six in a row – and he’s not knocking on head coach Dan McFarland’s door asking for a rest any time soon.

“I’m match hardened at this stage of the season. I’ve had my first good run of games over the last seven or eight weeks, so happy with where I am at the moment,” he insists, which naturally invites questions about whether his international ambitions are still there.

“I’m the same as any other player, I want to play at the highest level of the game, whether that’s the knockout stages of tournaments we’re in or Test match rugby. But my focus is solely on where we are now in the URC with Ulster, it’s not anywhere else.

“I don’t really like to speculate on it because I haven’t been in that world for so long, I don’t know the ins and outs or who’s there. I feel like it’s not even there for me to speak about. It’s a funny one.”


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