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McFarland impressed and frustrated as Ulster show character to force draw

The head coach hailed the work done on the team’s culture during the summer before his arrival.

Adam McKendry reports from Bloemfontein

ULSTER HEAD COACH Dan McFarland admits he’s disappointed by the way his side’s tour to South Africa ended after their 39-39 draw with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

A last-gasp try from Henry Speight, coupled with a crucial conversion from Billy Burns, rescued a draw for the visitors, who return from southern hemisphere to northern province with seven points from their two games against the Southern Kings and Cheetahs.

Angus Kernohan tackled by Benhard Janse van Rensburg Angus Kernohan hit hard by Benhard Janse van Rensburg Source: Frikkie Kapp/INPHO

Rabz Maxwane’s late try and a monster penalty from Louis Fouché seemed to have given the hosts their first win of the season, but Ulster refused to lie down and managed to salvage an extra point.

It means Ulster maintain their unbeaten start to the season – along with their lead at the top of Conference B in the Guinness PRO14 – while digging deep to snatch another result from the jaws of defeat at the last second. However, McFarland was left with conflicting emotions after the spoils were shared at the Toyota Stadium, with the overriding one being frustration at two points lost.

“We’re disappointed we didn’t win,” groaned the head coach, “we came with the objective of winning, we felt we could and I still feel we should have won. But in the first half we didn’t play the territory game perfectly and we missed a couple of tackles, which meant we ended up in our half defending for too long.

“Overall, with a five-day turnaround, the injuries we suffered in the lead up to the game and in the first quarter of the game, and only having a limited number of forwards to cover in trying conditions for us, I was really impressed.

To fight back in that second half, to take three points away from the match was… I’m not going to say satisfying but I will say well done to the lads.”

When asked if he would have taken seven points from the two games before he came, McFarland replied: “Before I came, no, I don’t think I would have done. I’d have taken two wins, but seven points? No.

 

Stuart McCloskey on the attack Stuart McCloskey on the attack. Source: Frikkie Kapp/INPHO

“We came here with the objective of getting two wins and we didn’t get it, so we’re disappointed. But given the circumstances in the second week (of the tour), three points is probably a fair reflection of our performance.”

For the second week in a row, Ulster struggled at set-piece defence, having a man sent to the sin bin for repeated offences at the maul – this week Alan O’Connor – and conceding two tries directly off mauls as well.

Discipline

Against a side more noted for their flair in the back-line than their brute strength up front, it must surely be a concern for the coaching staff, but McFarland believes it’s something else that needs addressing instead.

“We can’t keep giving penalties away because it’s leading to yellow cards and we’re having to defend mauls with one man less,” the Englishman explains.

“We’ve shown on occasions when we’re disciplined in that area, and when we have everyone on the field, we can deal with it handily, but not when we’re down a man. The focus for us is being disciplined in everything we do and making sure we don’t have to defend multiple mauls.”

But, despite all the doom and gloom talk, there are plenty of reasons to be positive, namely the fact that the province remain unbeaten and are still top of their conference.

Henry Speight and Walt Steenkamp Source: Frikkie Kapp/INPHO

As well as that, the attack which has shown so much promise in the opening few weeks finally clicked, running in five tries. And, of course, that never-say-die attitude shone through in the closing moments.

With time almost up, Alan O’Connor leapt highest to reclaim Ulster’s own restart, Speight spun out of contact to ground the crucial try and Burns nailed the conversion under extreme pressure. Even with the clock in the red, Ulster were never out of it.

“We refer to it as ‘fight for every inch’ and it actually came from (the players),” McFarland reveals.

“Over the summer, Bryn (Cunnigham) was getting information back from them about culture, mapping out what was important to the fellas, and one thing that came back was a really competitive attitude.

“That married in perfectly with what I’m about – that’s me. We’ve framed that as fight for every inch, so when we look at the matches and analyse them, we look for the behaviours that demonstrate that and we celebrate those.

“In the Scarlets game, the Edinburgh game and now this game, we’ve had to come from behind on multiple occasions and we’ve done that.”

And, according to the head coach, we haven’t come close to seeing what this team is capable of yet.

“We’re still growing,” he insists. “I don’t think we’re close to being as good as we can be, so the pressure is to keep on them, on us, to keep getting better. I think we’re certainly making progress.”

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