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'We could be on our sun loungers, but we’re playing play-off rugby' - McFarland eager for semi-final

Ulster will travel to Scotstoun to take on Glasgow Warriors on Friday.

BACK IN 2015, Ulster arrived at Scotstoun Stadium in expectation, knowing that one win would have them back in Belfast playing in the final of what was then the Guinness Pro12 Grand Final at their recently renamed home of Kingspan Stadium.

Dan McFarland Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

As it transpired, had they won that game then only Munster stood between them and their first trophy since 2005, and, as the final proceeded to play out, it was a severely misfiring Munster that arrived in Belfast that day.

In the end, however, Ulster weren’t one of the two competing teams in that final.

Despite leading for the majority of that semi-final in Glasgow, Ricky Lutton’s misguided arm around the neck of Niko Matawalu – as much as the Fijian winger flung himself to the ground with much theatrical grace – led to the Warriors gaining field position and, eventually, DTH van der Merwe crossing in the corner.

Finn Russell’s conversion, which just about cleared the bar and no more, sealed Ulster’s fate.

So this week, Ulster head back with a point to prove and a lot less on the line, as hard as it is to believe.

It’s still a semi-final, yes, and there’s still a place in the final up for grabs for the winners, but Ulster go in as firm underdogs in this clash rather than the slight favourites they were back in 2015.

This time it’s not a final in Belfast either, it would be a return to Glasgow against either Leinster or Munster to decide who will be crowned Pro14 champions for 2019.

It’s set up that it could be Glasgow taking on Munster again, or, perhaps, Ulster getting that one-off crack at their southern cousins that they so desperately craved back in 2015.

Not that there’s any guarantee that they will get it though, given the challenge they face at Scotstoun tomorrow.

There’s no expectation on their shoulders, the very fact they’re still standing in the semi-finals is an achievement in itself to a fanbase that was simply hoping for an upturn on a dismal 2017-18 hit-out.

But don’t mention the words free hit to head coach Dan McFarland.

I think that would be a negative because ultimately, I see it as an opportunity to learn from play-off games and you can’t learn if you see it as a free hit,” insists the Ulster head coach, who will return to the ground he began his prosperous relationship with Gregor Townsend back in, amazingly, 2015.

“You can only learn if you give it your absolute best shot, so that comes in preparation, it comes in process and it comes in game-planning, it comes in focusing on your precision and your physical intensity. (If) any of those come second best, how do we learn?

Dave Rennie before the game Glasgow head coach Dave Rennie. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“Because all we do is we look at the game and say we weren’t really up for that because it was a free hit, so we can’t learn anything from it. So, if we win and we’re full-on, we’ll learn something from it.

“If we lose and we were full-on and we got everything right we thought in our processes, we can go away and say ‘we didn’t get that quite right that’s where we need to change, that’s where we need to get better’, but anything less than that top level of performance, you can’t learn from it because all you know is we could have tried harder.”

One thing that Ulster will certainly have in their favour is that they will be the fresher of the two teams taking to the pitch in Glasgow tomorrow given they last played a couple of weeks ago, while the Warriors haven’t faced competitive action since the week before that.

It’s something that has concerned Dave Rennie, who is believed to have tried to arrange a friendly between themselves and the Ospreys to keep his side ticking over during those down weeks, and having been battle-hardened by their quarter-final against Connacht, McFarland’s men must surely be feeling a lot more prepared.

Not only that, but the rest period is believed to have given Jacob Stockdale and Louis Ludik enough time to recover for selection, while any niggling injuries sustained in that interpro will likely have healed by the time the team head to Scotland.

McFarland, however, is not convinced it is such an advantage as it is made out to be. “Glasgow won’t be undercooked,” he insists.

Jacob Stockdale Stockdale in action for Ulster. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“Dave Rennie is a championship winning coach with a lot of experience and last year in his first year in charge, they did so well out of the blocks.

“They ended up not playing as well as they had previously in the season and then suffered in the semi-final, but Dave Rennie is a championship winning coach and he won’t make that mistake again.

“From reading everything that they’re talking about, they’ll definitely not be undercooked.”

The learning process is still continuing for Ulster as their rebuild under McFarland gathers pace, but this week it will be accelerated that little bit further with another crack at play-off rugby, something that, although a goal in order to return to Europe next season, they have received plenty of experience in this season.

Between that quarter-final against Leinster, and then the league quarter-final against Connacht, Ulster’s young squad are being thrown in at the deep end and are seemingly thriving.

This weekend they get another shot, and while it’s hard to argue it’s bigger than that game at the Aviva, it’s another massive test of their resolve.

For McFarland, too, it is a learning curve as he works out how he wants to take his side into the kind of games he hopes, someday, they will be winning on a regular basis all the way to silverware. Right now, he thinks he has the formula down to what he wants it to be.

“The processes we went through (for Leinster and Connacht) we’re very happy with. We felt the preparation for that (Connacht) game went very well,” he admits.

“The improvements we need to make are in and around our precision and the way that we go about that but that sits within the process itself as opposed to being a change in process.

When the season comes to an end, we’ll have a look at those processes as well and see whether there’s anything we can tweak around that but I’d be very happy with the way the process works.”

So to tomorrow. At the end of the day, as much as this is a learning process and as much as they are not expected to progress to that final a week on Saturday – the bookies make them nine-point underdogs – Ulster want to win. And there are, of course, ways to do that.

Matching Glasgow’s pace is one. Getting parity with their all-international front row is another. Finding a way to get to that highly efficient half-back pairing of Ali Price and Adam Hastings will also be high on the agenda.

What did it for them in that 30-7 mauling only a month ago, however, was a line-out that never worked out how to factor Jonny Gray out of the equation, the British and Irish Lion seemingly managing to get his mitts on anything that Ulster sent further than to the man at the front of the line-out, provided they didn’t overthrow it to overcompensate.

Tomorrow, you suspect his detail will be along much of the same lines: disrupt the catch, disrupt the line-out, disrupt Ulster.

For McFarland, that means figuring out a way to negate that, either by switching up what they’re going to do, or by trusting that their systems will have been refined enough to outfox the 25-year-old Scottish international.

Rory Best and Iain Henderson dejected after the game Rory Best and Iain Henderson. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s a mixture of both,” he surmises, knowing that, unlike back in April, he will be able to call upon his trusted line-out battery of Rory Best and Iain Henderson this week, rather than Rob Herring and Alan O’Connor as it was last time.

“Tactically you have to look at the way they defend and their personnel, and then you look your normal system and see whether that can cope with that, and normally it can.

“Normally, things within the system that you’re using, if you execute it well, and that’s the second part, you’ll come out on the right side of that, but if you get it tactically wrong or you get the execution wrong that’s why you end up losing seven line-outs which is what happened last time.”

At the end of the day, though, there’s a buzz about Belfast. The game might not be there, but their team is back in play-off rugby again, and it feels good.

McFarland grins.

It’s exciting. It’s what you want to be doing. We could be on our sun loungers now, but we’re playing play-off rugby, which is brilliant.”

Isn’t it just.

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