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Dublin: 15 °C Saturday 24 August, 2019
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Ulster take 'huge amount of pride' from Ireland's success as provinces prepare to return

Dan McFarland’s side face the Scarlets on Friday night.

ULSTER HEAD COACH Dan McFarland says that Ireland’s win over the All Blacks has fostered a sense of pride within his province as they prepare to return to Guinness Pro14 action against the Scarlets on Friday night.

Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale, Rory Best and Jordi Murphy celebrate winning Ulster's and Ireland's Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale, Rory Best and Jordi Murphy. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ireland’s incredible 16-9 win on Saturday evening was the first time that New Zealand had ever been defeated in Dublin, and only the second time in history that they’d been beaten by Ireland after the infamous Chicago victory in 2016.

On both occasions it was an Ulsterman who led the way for the victorious Irishmen, with Rory Best in possession of the captain’s armband in Chicago and Dublin, while Jacob Stockdale scored the decisive try and Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy came on off the bench.

He may not have been there in person, and he may not even be Irish at birth, but McFarland grins when reflecting on the result, and insists it can be a boost for the whole island, even for those who didn’t actually play at the Aviva Stadium.

“I think there is a lot of pride,” beams the Englishman. “We are all part of Irish rugby. Here in Ulster we have a stated aim of getting as many of our younger players in Ireland team as we possibly can.

“So when we see one of our own or, as at the weekend, several of our own, there is a huge amount of pride.

“I think there is also a sense of the standards that we are aiming for as well, and a part of. We have to make sure we maintain those high standards. Guys when they come back here, they are also feeling as if they are being pushed and that those young lads are being pushed to the same level as those Ireland players.

“These guys are ambitious young men, that’s why I love being a part of it. There are hopes and dreams in all of them. They have that desperation to get to that level that the knowledge that the amount of work they have to put in to get there and the willingness to do that is fantastic to be a part of.”

McFarland has been a part of it now for just under three months, taking over at Ulster officially at the end of August after a long drawn out battle to secure his release from the SRU, and having had a couple of weeks off recently, he’s had time to reflect.

With Ulster having not had a game — bar a friendly against Uruguay that was, for all intents and purposes, an Ulster A game — since the scrappy win in Italy over Benetton, it’s been a chance for McFarland to take stock of where Ulster are at.

Currently sitting second in Conference B of the Pro14, and sitting not too badly in Europe as well, for a team that has had to rely heavily on their up-and-coming prospects from the Academy, it’s not been a bad start to the season.

Dan McFarland Ulster manager McFarland. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

If you’d asked the majority of Ulster fans, and one suspects some of the staff, if they’d have taken this at the start of the season then they probably would have, but McFarland is staying pragmatic and instead points out the run of games they have coming up.

“I didn’t come in thinking we were going to be here, there or anywhere,” maintains the boss. “It’s all about starting up and putting a performance down and trying to make progress in our game plan. But even that is relative to the opposition you are playing against.

“We now have ten games on the trot which include some of the best teams in Europe that we are going to have to play. We are playing Scarlets away, Cardiff at home who have been trucking well, we have Scarlets again twice, Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Racing, then Leicester away.

“This is a serious block of games that are going to test us and it is a great opportunity to stand up and show what we are made of.”

Still, even McFarland can’t deny progress has been made.

There’s been a changing of the guard with five Academy players making their senior bow already this season, with plenty more impressing in that friendly against the Uruguayans, and despite the inexperience, Ulster have been impressive for the most part.

“I think we are certainly making progress. There’s been a blooding of young players which is characterised, certainly in the backs where we have been dealing with a few long-term injuries and as a consequence a lot of the young fellas have come in,” explains McFarland.

“It has been very difficult to get any cohesive momentum there, but that has also been really terrific seeing the likes of Rob Baloucoune, Angus Kernohan, Michael Lowry coming through, and James Hume last weekend. That’s been interesting.

“Putting in place the way we want to attack, and that focus is part of our game and it has been good and we have certainly seen progress in that. Now it’s a question of taking that up and turning to the things that we need to get right going forward.”

So then, moving forward leads them to the Parc y Scarlets for the first of two trips in the next three weeks, with three of their next four against Conference B rivals the Scarlets in both the league and the back-to-back Champions Cup fixtures.

It’s a massive meeting this week for the Ulstermen though, who could take a firm grasp on second place in Conference B if they could steal away from Llanelli with the victory, with only a point separating themselves and the third-placed Welshmen.

Both sides are ravaged by injuries and international call-ups, so the likelihood of this game reflecting that which took place on the opening day of the season – won 15-13 by Ulster thanks to a last minute penalty from John Cooney – is slim.

John Cooney John Cooney. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

But McFarland is sure it will be just as competitive, and the quality will be a lot higher due to both sides having gained that cohesiveness during the season.

“Both teams want to play a counter-attacking game. So the style of players is not going to change, or I would be very surprised if it did change,” insists the former Connacht prop.

“We will have worked on bits and pieces. I watched our first game in preparation for this game and what we were putting out on the defence side of the game and the attack side of the game, we looked pretty rusty back then, but it will be the same for them.

“They are more accomplished in their cohesiveness now, as are we. This is a game with a lot riding on it. We are looking forward to it.”

Ulster are hopeful they will have Louis Ludik and Darren Cave back for Friday’s trip to Llanelli, but both are unlikely to do so as they recover from their respective injuries: Ludik having not played all season due to a hamstring injury, while Cave is nursing a broken thumb.

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