Ulster were left dejected in Gloucester last weekend. Billy Stickland/INPHO

McFarland defends Ulster form after Ferris questions province's quality

Ulster have had suffered two defeats in the Champions Cup over the past fortnight.

OFF THE BACK of the defeat to Gloucester on Saturday and their loss to Toulouse a week earlier, former Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris was quick to launch a rather unexpected and fairly scathing indictment of the province’s season to date.

“I don’t believe Ulster are as good as people think, and I think the last two games have shown that,” opined the ex-Ireland and Lions forward on Monday.

Although the defeats ended their Heineken Champions Cup hopes as early as possible, given the margins of the losses – four and seven points respectively – it was something of a surprising take, especially when put in the context that those were the team’s first two reverses of the season so far.

Of course, sweeping aside all comers in the Guinness Pro14 isn’t quite the same as coming up against the global superstars of Toulouse or travelling to somewhere with the European history of Kingsholm, and thus laid the crux of Ferris’ argument – you cannot judge Ulster on their Pro14 form given the lack of quality opposition.

But, unsurprisingly, Ulster head coach Dan McFarland was quick to disagree with the Ravenhill favourite’s opinion.

“We were very close to beating Toulouse, and if the scrum decisions had gone the way I think they should have then we would have won that game. We went away to Gloucester and had three yellow cards in the game and lost by a whisker,” argued McFarland.

“We’re a whisker away from having 10 points in the Champions Cup and we end up having three. The margins are so fine.

“The other thing I would say is something that’s really relevant. Hendy (Iain Henderson), Luke Marshall, Rob Baloucoune, Will Addison – none of those guys were available in the Champions Cup. Sam and Marcell played the first half and a bit of the first game. They’re big men for big games, so (not having them) is going to make it tough.

“I cannot fault the guys who stepped into their place there and did their job and, as I say, came within a whisker of having ten points. So I’m not sure the comparison was misleading.

dan-mcfarland McFarland and co. travel to take on Connacht this weekend. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I suspect (Ferris) is right that, leading into the Champions Cup games, I said it was going to be a completely different kettle of fish. But let’s face it, the fact is we won eight games and got six bonus-point wins. We can’t be in bad form, can we?”

So the question then remains: where are Ulster as a team? Domestically they are on the top tier, as their unbeaten start suggests, but look to Europe and their two results indicate they are still a ways off those perennial challengers such as the likes of Leinster, Racing 92, and Exeter Chiefs.

Perhaps those questions will be answered over the next five weeks. Three inter-provincials will test their mettle and squad depth as they try and ensure that a bump in the middle of their season doesn’t become a skid, followed by two opportunities to exact some vengeance on the continent.

A trip to Connacht on Sunday (7.35pm), a side with near-identical fortunes in Europe this season, isn’t the ideal place for Ulster to try and rebound given they haven’t won in Galway since 2015, but McFarland has challenged his side to take their learnings from their Champions Cup disappointment to take to the Sportsground.

“It’s all context driven,” explains McFarland on how the province will move forward. “It depends on the manner of defeat, what you’ve got to learn and it depends on what the next game is. There is no blueprint to how it works other than the fact that you take your learnings. That’s how it is.

“The bottom line is that you have to be able to deal with it and move on so that you can focus on what you’ve got to do.

“(Connacht) have lost a couple of games in Europe and we’ve lost a couple of games in Europe. It is disappointing, Europe is a tough competition, and now we’re playing some tough inter-pros.

“There’s history there that says that this is a tremendous challenge for us. Connacht are a proud side, they play well at home and they did some great stuff against Bristol and came out on the wrong side against a team packed with really good players.

“We know they’ll be smarting and we’re going to come down with an attitude we want to take this challenge head on and get a win away from home.”

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