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Dublin: 5°C Saturday 27 February 2021

'We've to knuckle down, understand that simple errors kill your ability to maintain pressure'

Dan McFarland questioned whether he was putting enough emphasis on Ulster’s ball possession in contact. But he is willing to change quickly.

James Hume reacts as Leinster seal victory.
James Hume reacts as Leinster seal victory.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

A DECISION HERE, a little more battle hardiness there and Ulster would have given Leinster a much closer run on Saturday night, felt Dan McFarland as he picked through a second loss on the hop since restart.

As it was, Ulster did manage to shake themselves out of the malaise that took hold of their first-half display. The second 40 at the Aviva was a massively-improved effort that took them from 0-16 down to 10-16 and they might have pulled within four points for the closing stages had a different view been taken of John Cooney’s electric disallowed intercept try.

Before rugby resumed, most in the province would have been happy to crank slowly into gear and really hit their straps in the Pro14 semi-final. Maybe the second half in Dublin on Saturday was evidence that Ulster will in fact put their best foot forward when they take on Edinburgh in Murrayfield in next weekend’s semi-final.

Either way, head coach Dan McFarland will preside over a feisty training week ahead. Either placing new focus on players’ ball fight efforts or reminding them of its importance.

“I don’t have an answer for why we made so many errors in the first half,” said McFarland from the large empty press conference room in the Aviva, “I watch the guys training at an intensity level and speed that’s faster than what we play in and we’re not making the errors.

“Ball security, we lost a couple of balls in contact and that’s not so much something you do in training. Perhaps I’ve been remiss in not exercising that. But we have to be better at not being stripped or losing the ball in those tackle situations.”

McFarland brushed off the suggestion that the midweek Coronavirus scare had a bearing on preparations, pointing out that they had one good training session and had not planned on doing a great deal more than that on a six-day turnaround.

It didn’t help.

“They weren’t decision-making errors, they were more basic ball retention errors. They’re things that players are all capable of doing. Often in these situations, there needs to be awareness of it.

“If you’re losing the ball in contact, it’s not because you don’t have the skill. It might be that the nature of emphases in training – maybe I haven’t put that importance on it.

“Maybe we haven’t created the scenarios in training that puts them under that pressure. So when a team like Leinster, or Connacht last week, stress that it becomes an issue.

“It’s not something that takes six months to solve. Let’s hope it takes two training sessions.”

jordi-murphy-leaves-the-field-injured Jordi Murphy is given assistance by the medics. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The part Jordi Murphy can play in those training sessions remains to be seen as the flanker was removed for a HIA on Saturday. McFarland put a hopeful outlook on Jacob Stockdale’s prognosis despite the fullback walking to the bench with a heavy limp. Luke Marshall’s hip will keep him out, but Stuart McCloskey, Jack McGrath and Billy Burns will be back in harness to guide the team in Murrayfield.

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When the coaching staff bring the team together for a meeting today ahead of the semi-final week, they will at least have a lengthy positive passage from Saturday’s second half to point towards as a building block to move beyond the two defeats on Lansdowne Road.

“There’s an encouraging sign in the buzz and zip and intensity to how we played in that period. Even in the first half when we strung some bits together. 

“We wanted to play, we looked much more like the Ulster team that got us into this position: movement of the ball, running hard, finding edges and we looked like that team against what we know is a really good defensive outfit.

We just have to knuckle down and understand that simple errors really kill your ability to maintain pressure on the opposition.”

There is little doubt that Leinster would have felt a whole lot more pressure if Cooney’s breakaway try had stood. Had the scrum-half nailed the conversion after stealing Rowan Osborne’s pass then Ulster’s deficit would have been down to four points. Scoring a decisive late try on Leinster is another tall order, but no harm letting them feel hot breath on the back of their neck.

stuart-mccloskey-dejected Stuart McCloskey heads for the dressing rooms. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The pressure didn’t materialise, of course, as the mercurial nine’s try was ruled out for an offside as he moved to intercept. McFarland was ready to challenge anyone willing to generously call it a ‘borderline’ decision against his side.

“What borderline? I didn’t see a borderline. I haven’t spoken to a single person yet who thought it was offside, I don’t understand how it was offside.

“Does anyone here think it was offside?,” asked McFarland and a dozen onlookers considered the ungainful clunky actions involved in unmuting themselves to offer a muddled recollection.

“The back foot of the ruck, I’ve watched every angle and he’s on the back foot of a ruck.”

You sense McFarland’s ire would have drawn out longer if the press conference wasn’t playing out on Microsoft Teams or if there wasn’t a pandemic ongoing outside the bubble. A bubble, Ulster were reminded, that is worryingly thin.

So while McFarland wouldn’t mark a missed training session as a factor in their first-half struggles against Leinster, feeling that Coronavirus is in their midst is no help whatsoever.

“The biggest thing is waiting for your test results. It plays on my mind. I’m not sure about the others and the docs.

“It is what it is. It’s played on my mind every time we’ve done testing. It’s a difficult time, but we’re getting used to it.”

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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