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‘A one-game finish to the season – that is a damp squib’

Ulster coach Dan McFarland has criticised the format of this year’s Pro14 championship – saying his side deserved a play-off game as a reward for their consistency.

A dejected Ulster after the loss to Leinster.
A dejected Ulster after the loss to Leinster.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

FOR DAN MCFARLAND, for Ulster, the biggest challenge now is trying to take the Challenge Cup seriously. If they can – and they should – then this prolonged drought may end. It is 15 years and counting now since they last won a trophy.

In the meantime, rival Pro14 sides – Connacht, Munster, Ospreys, Glasgow, Cardiff and Scarlets have all collected some silverware and that is before we mention Leinster, winners of 11 major trophies since Ulster won the 2006 Celtic League.

While Leinster have long since learned how to close the deal, Ulster, in contrast, have become specialists in near misses, losing the 2012 Heineken Cup final, the 2013 and 2020 Pro14 deciders, as well as five Pro14 semi-finals in eight years.

Their interest in this year’s competition ended last night after Leinster’s controversial victory at Ravenhill. That’s precisely what McFarland is annoyed about. In any other season, they’d have had a play-off as a reward for their consistency.

john-cooney-with-frank-murphy Ref Frank Murphy speaks to John Cooney. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Instead, they are out, having accumulated 54 points yet Munster, by virtue of the fact they are in a different conference, are guaranteed a place in the final, even though they too have collected 54 points. It’s also worth pointing out that Ulster played Leinster twice, Munster just once. Plus Ulster defeated an admittedly understrength Munster in round 10. 

“We weren’t good enough to be top of our conference,” said McFarland. “We’ve definitively said that we’re good enough to be second. In my personal opinion if you finish second in your conference, in the format that the leagues are in, then you should be playing play-off games. We’ve earned the right to be there.

It just seems like a real damp squib that there’s only going to be one game to finish the season, a season when a lot of the games have been characterised by understrength teams. The fans are surely crying out for play-offs. Games that have actual knock-out meaning.”

Instead of a series of play-offs, Ulster will play in this year’s Challenge Cup – with the draw for the round of 16 scheduled for Tuesday.

“It’ll be exciting to play knock-out rugby,” said McFarland.

Will the Rainbow Cup – another Pro14 season with a South African twist – excite?

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“I understand how complex the formula is for the game’s administrators,” he said.

“You’ve got weekends, timings and commercial interests. I can’t speak to the complexities of their decision-making process. What I can speak to is at the end of a 16-game round-robin season, it’s not that it doesn’t seem fair, it just doesn’t seem right that there’s only one game to finish it.
“People love play-off games. We extended it (the season) out (in 2019).”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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