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McFarland 'more confident' that Ulster's clash with Munster will go ahead

The northern province have had a Covid-19 outbreak in recent times.

Ulster have been out of action for the past two weekends.
Ulster have been out of action for the past two weekends.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

HEAD COACH DAN McFarland insists Ulster would have played their games against Connacht and Leinster with whoever they had available had their Covid-19 outbreak allowed them to.

The province saw both of their festive inter-provincial ties due to be held at Kingspan Stadium called off as the Omicron variant ripped through the squad, with the situation so bad it left them unable to field a side for either game.

The Connacht game, due to be held on St Stephen’s Day, was called off as late as Christmas Eve as the extent of the outbreak took hold, while the New Year’s Day clash with Leinster fell several days in advance when the province returned further positive cases, proving the variant was still making its way through the playing staff.

To date, there has been little clarity on how bad the situation has to be at a club to necessitate postponing a game in the United Rugby Championship, whether it be a certain number of cases or as simple as a team being incapable of fielding a team for the weekend’s fixture.

However, McFarland has lifted the lid slightly on the situation and has maintained that, had the URC not deemed the game to have posed risk to either side, they would have been happy to continue playing.

“In my experience so far it’s when the situation is considered that going ahead with the game is likely to cause more spread, or has the potential to cause more spread. If you feel that you have the situation under control, that’s the way it is,” explained the head coach.

“Obviously there are situations where you don’t have enough players, we would have played on both weeks even with weakened teams, but that wasn’t the situation.”

Fortunately for all involved, Ulster are moving forward this week with the intention of fulfilling their final festive inter-pro against Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday. They are still awaiting the results of their initial testing this morning, however McFarland has claimed they are ‘more confident than last week’ that the game will go ahead.

Even if the match does go ahead, though, there are things that will have to change. For instance, where possible the majority of the province’s preparation will have to be done outdoors rather than in meetings that are normally done indoors.

From an availability perspective, several players that feature on Saturday may not be available to train the full week as they return from their respective periods of isolation, too. It’s far from an ideal situation but, in order to get the show back on the road, it’s all necessary.

“Outside of that, we’re just as careful as we can be. The Omicron variant is obviously way more transmissible, we have seen that through the squads. So you’ve got to be more aware, you’ve got to be tighter on the things that you do and try to avoid it as much as you can,” adds McFarland.

“We would plan to (train as normal) but then we’ve had testing today so hopefully we’ll find out those results first thing in the morning. That might dictate what we’re able to do in our training session that day, which is exactly what happened in the previous two weeks.

“You’re always trying to adapt but we’ve been doing that for quite a long time anyway, so there were days when you could only do certain things. Or take the week of Connacht, we left the ground on the day that a couple of positives came and you’re trying to make sure that you’re creating as little risk as possible.”

In between all the Covid disruption, McFarland has been trying to keep a team that had gathered plenty of momentum prior to Christmas ticking over, something which has proven particularly trying given he has rarely had the same group available to him.

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Striking a balance, therefore, is paramount right now. The head coach concedes that while it would be easy to go back to basics in preparation for their trip to Limerick, that’s not going to be enough to win them a game of rugby.

“Rugby is an extremely complex game, it has 15 people on the park with a lot of different elements and people doing widely different things and as a consequence, with all that complexity and moving parts, cohesion becomes a premium,” he claims.

“In order to get that, you can simplify as much as you can. But, at the level we’re playing at complete simplicity is not going to win you anything, is it? The opposition teams are good enough to spot that, you have to have a certain amount of complexity in there.

“It’s that balance between having clarity and complexity; complex enough that it’s able to break down the opposition, but clear enough that you’re able to execute.

“That’s the skill in the coaching, in producing systems that you can use week in, week out. That’s the point when it comes to the breaks, to playing for a few games and then stopping; it’s are you able then when you come back in to go back to the systems you’ve been using so that guys who can click back into it, get back on board.

“If you were in a situation where things were evolving all the time and things were changing week in, week out – that would make it very difficult. I reckon if this happened in a club putting in place lots of new systems that would be extremely difficult.”

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