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McFarland just about able to see funny side of Ulster's 'almost French' near-collapse

The Ulster coach is relishing the prospect of facing the likes of Toulouse in the next round, the opposite of a reward for an excellent pool showing.

Ulster boss Dan McFarland.
Ulster boss Dan McFarland.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

DAN McFARLAND WAS briefly able to see the funny side of the final 10 minutes at Kingspan Stadium, jokingly describing Ulster’s near-capitulation at the hands of Clermont as “almost quite French”.

While some of a more Gallic disposition would perhaps balk at such a suggestion, there was a degree of Montpellier’s tame surrender at the RDS Arena a week ago about how Ulster proceeded to allow their visitors – who, up to that point, had offered surprisingly little – to essentially walk in three tries from the 69th minute onwards.

Fortunately, unlike Montpellier, Ulster at this stage had already amassed a 22-point lead thanks to a phenomenal 70-minute performance that emphasised exactly why they are strolling into the last 16 of the Heineken Champions Cup as the second seeds in Pool A with a four-from-four record.

Still, the fact the final margin was just the three points will not sit well in the head coach’s office for the next few days at least.

“The fact that in the last 10 minutes we sat on our laurels was almost quite French, and for me as a coach I found that very disappointing. But that’s something I will address with the players and we’ll look at what it takes not to sit on our laurels,” said McFarland.

You have to remember they brought on Camille Lopez and Penaud in the last 20, 25 minutes of the game, and these are unbelievable players, who can open up a game on their own. It needed us not to be at 95%, but to be at 100%.

“Bottom line is in the last minute we needed one set of defence to see out the game and we got it.”

It was a point echoed by hooker Rob Herring, who scored two tries in the win which will not have gone unnoticed by Andy Farrell.

“We did so well to build up a lead and we were playing some good rugby, then we switched off,” conceded the Ireland international. “I think that’s the disappointing thing at the end of the game. It happened against Northampton as well, so it’s something we have to look at.”

Those kinds of lapses in concentration will cost them later in the tournament if they are not at their sparkling best for the remainder of the game. Fortunately for McFarland’s men, for the first 70 minutes they turned in a performance that was as effortless as it was dominant.

Such was the province’s control of the play, you could count on one hand the number of times Clermont breached the Ulster 22 before their late flurry of scores. Indeed, but for one well-earned scrum penalty, all of their points came courtesy of Ulster penalties capitalised upon by the boot of Morgan Parra.

At the other end, meanwhile, Ulster looked like they were going to score every time they came remotely close to the visitors’ red zone, and their relentless offensive pressure saw Clermont concede 10 penalties and Alivereti Raka spend a costly ten minutes in the bin that cost them 17 points.

While the win against Northampton a week ago was built off their scintillating backs, this week they widened their offensive scope to great effect. The maul set the platform with two in the first half, Duane Vermeulen provided the muscle with a first try in an Ulster jersey, and Mike Lowry and Robert Baloucoune were the reminder that their back three is lethal when given a sliver of an opportunity.

“I think we played some fantastic rugby to get out to 30 points to not-very-many, it was a testament to the way the lads played this evening, some brilliant attacking rugby, some brilliant defensive rugby,” praised McFarland.

“Some of the tries we scored, the combination of maul, hanging onto the ball in the opposition 22 and some fantastic rugby out from our own 22 really staged what characterised the match.”


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Herring concurred, again adding: “The last 10 minutes were disappointing but throughout the first 70 minutes there were a lot of really good efforts, good work off the ball that led to some great tries.

“I thought the boys were really physical out there, the only access we gave Clermont during the game was through our errors in the first half. Other than those errors that gave them access I thought we were pretty good.”

Their reward for finishing second in Pool A could be characterised as anything but. Due to their game against Cardiff being called off due to Covid-19 cases within their camp, defending champions Toulouse look likely to be the team finishing seventh in Pool B.

The idea of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and co. being a reward for an excellent pool campaign is laughable, and may not yet come to pass with Wasps potentially ruining things against Munster on Sunday, but McFarland was surprisingly bullish about his side’s chances in the aftermath of their win.

It is a bizarre scenario this year, isn’t it? You win all your games and you finish second in a pool of 12. We genuinely deserved to be second, we played all four games and played two teams that were genuinely up for the competition, and the reward is playing Toulouse!

“I relish the thought of playing Toulouse, they’re one of if not the greatest rugby team in Europe over the last 50 or 60 years, and we’ve had a crack off them in the last few years on a number of occasions. We know how tough they are to beat but that’s another chance for us to test ourselves against them.

“If it is Toulouse, so be it, but if it’s not it could be Wasps, it could be Bordeaux. I watched Bordeaux play last week, some of the rugby they play is fantastic, it’s really exciting to watch. Bottom line is that Wasps beat Toulouse, so any team you play in the last-16 is going to be good.”

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