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Dublin: -2°C Sunday 11 April 2021

Ulster steel themselves for 'cruel' final scenario

Dan McFarland spoke passionately yesterday about the weird occasion ahead, being written off and how Ulster worked to make sure everyone knows they ‘give a shit’.

DAN MCFARLAND HAD one of the shorter journeys made by Connacht supporters or well-wishers when he went to Murrayfield in May 2016. 

Venue aside, the occasion had all the hallmarks you could ask of an all-Ireland final.

Tribal rivalries, foes from either side of the island.

One team who expects to reach such heights, another revelling in the rarity of their visit to the decider, with supporters and former comrades showing up from all corners enjoy the wonderful rarity and join the chorus.

Then Connacht head coach Pat Lam spoke all throughout that week about the showdown with Leinster being ‘a celebration’. This was not just a 23-man game, Connacht brought over their academy players, injured men, outgoing men and staff. Then Glasgow Warriors forwards coach, McFarland was a part of that sense of reunion. A face in the crowd that players were thrilled to see when they looked to the stands.

Murrayfield on Saturday was a very different place. And as he leads Ulster into a final against the same daunting opposition, McFarland is only too aware that he won’t be able to rely on the same waves of emotion that made Connacht’s shock final win so special.

dan-mcfarland McFarland back at Murrayfield ahead of Saturday's dramatic win. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“It was only as I was sat up in the stand (on Saturday night) as the players ran out onto the pitch that it occurred to me,” says the Ulster boss, “it’s not really to do with the performance, the missing of the crowd, it’s to do with the missing of the occasion.

I mean that from the crowd’s point of view, the players’ point of view, the coaches’ point of view… a semi-final is a massive occasion and it deserves to be shared and experienced in its fullest and obviously in the final that’s more the case.

“There are so many people who are going to miss out on that experience, from the fans’ point of view, but also the playing staff and everyone involved in the clubs.”

It goes beyond direct involvement, of course. We’ve become accustomed to seeing players show a little more of themselves on the very biggest occasions – family await to embrace them after international Tests, children are hoisted after trophies in finals.

McFarland’s first final as a head coach is not an occasion he will be able to share with this son. That hurts.

“I know it is what it,” he says, nobody needs reminding there’s a pandemic going on,” but it doesn’t stop it from being cruel.”

Back in 2016, of course, McFarland was well on his way up the curve as a respected coach of some repute. He would quickly be promoted from Glasgow to Scotland assistant coach. All the while, his future employers in Ulster were charting inexorably in the opposite direction.

From a Pro12 semi-final in 2016 to what can now be casually referred to as their ‘annus horribilis’ in 2017/18 – a season of disappointment on the field that paled into insignificance when overshadowed by the Belfast Rape Trial.

john-cooney-2112018 John Cooney during Les Kiss' last match in charge. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Asked yesterday to pin-point a shift in culture or mindset during his tenure, McFarland opted against giving an answer to ‘blow his own trumpet’. Instead, he pointed at the rubble of where the province was when he accepted the job. A heavy loss in the Coventry snow, a seventh-place ranking in the first Pro14 (fourth in Conference B) and rancour outside the gates after the contracts of Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson were revoked.

“A lot of things that have changed in the period, not least circumstance and context,” says the former prop.

The annus horribilis that was the year before was a lot to do with off-field stuff. Perhaps a little bit of stability coming in… it’s about saying, ‘we’re actually capable of doing this and we have a plan on how we’re going to get there. We’re going to work really hard to get there and we’re going to demonstrate to everybody that everybody who works in this building actually gives a shit.

“It’s not that they didn’t beforehand because they 100% did, but there was a perception because of the context that what happened in that year that people didn’t. And that perception was wrong.”

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While McFarland deflects more credit away from himself by pointing out that he was a late arrival as head coach, joining in September of his first season, there is no escaping the work he has done to change the perception of the northern province’s team.

From day one in the job, McFarland has made ‘fight for every inch’ a mantra and a minimum requirement for his side. Although the sporting shutdown denied Ulster the chance to show the full extent of their growth in the coach’s year two, the efforts to build on that ‘fight’ with a dogged determination to be a dominant side were in full evidence during their run in Europe.

Before the restart, Toulouse away had to be the beacon Ulster built towards. But now they’re in a final, they are ready to throw everything at Leinster.

It will take at least that to unseat Leo Cullen’s unbeaten and unbelievably rotatable team.

The efforts to that end started yesterday as McFarland lavished praise and bookmakers’ odds on Leinster while stirring his own ranks up to prove a point.

“I want to use the phrase ‘we have a puncher’s chance’ but what have the bookies got us at, -10 at the moment?”

The handicap was -11 when The42 glanced again yesterday evening. Another kick out of reach.

“That’s a two-score deficit in a final They are basically saying that we have got no chance.

ian-madigan-celebrates-kicking-the-winning-penalty-with-teammates-with-the-last-kick-of-the-game Jacob Stockdale celebrates Ulster's last-gasp win in Edinburgh. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

“(Leinster) obviously can be beaten. Saracens beat them last year in a final. We have to go out and be able to have a physical intensity that can at least match them, have a game plan that is a way of getting into them but also is a way of executing.

“We are going to need big plays from our big players and we will need to be precise. If we can get those things right then we have a chance and if they don’t get those things right then it’ll obviously help us, but I am not planning for them to make any mistakes.”

Executing at a high level, under no duress from a watching crowd, but intense pressure from a suffocating Leinster defence. That’s the sort of challenge Ulster ought to relish.

A chance to show how far they’ve come. Even if they only have one another to roar on.

“We want the pressure on us because if you don’t have the pressure on you, I genuinely don’t believe you care enough.

“We promised ourselves our goal was to win silverware. As hard as that is and the fact only one team can do it, that’s what we said, that’s the only thing we wanted.

“With that comes pressure to perform to the level you know you can.

“And also the pressure of the fact, if you lose, there’s a huge amount of pain afterwards.

“In sport if the losses don’t hurt then the wins never mean as much. How can you possibly enjoy the heights of winning if you don’t know the massive lows of losing.”

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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