In reviewing the Guinness PRO14 Final defeat to Leinster at Aviva Stadium on Saturday, Ulster’s Head Coach, Dan McFarland, expressed his disappointment but also his pride in the squad and support staff in reaching this point.
“Initially, I felt bitterly disappointed; more because I felt we didn’t play as well as we can do, but the longer I take, the more I realise we did a lot of good stuff. Everything has to be put into context with the opposition we were playing against.
“In the first half, we had some really good opportunities to make pressure count and we didn’t take them inside Leinster’s 22-metre line. They were pretty good in our 22 in the second half and we didn’t make the restarts count.
“Leinster were phenomenal when they were on the front foot. We did a really good job of stifling that for a lot of the game, which was the way we needed to play against them. They defended us as they normally do and in the first half, we were able to exploit that to a certain extent, but in the second half, we weren’t.
“It’s disappointing but the more I sit here, the prouder I am of the people I work with and the amount of effort they put in. That’s not just the 23 guys that took the pitch; it’s the seven guys who came down to help out; it’s the 15 guys who weren’t allowed to attend. The work they’ve put in, as well as the support staff and the enormous hours and expertise they put in have been tremendous. We’ve been building that and the disappointment comes from the realisation that we’re a fair bit away from where we wanted to be.”
McFarland and his coaching team will use the frustration from losing against Leinster as a motivation to keep improving in the crucial games that lie ahead.
“We will harness the disappointment in the sense that the whole thing is a journey and every day that you come in is a part of getting better. This gives us a real marker for the way we can get better. In the past, when we’ve lost these games, we’ve gone away and ruthlessly reviewed them to take the bits we need to work on. We’ve taken a lot from the games we’ve lost and won.”
On the prospect of facing Toulouse this Sunday, he is wary of the threats they pose across the board.
“In eight days’ time, we play Toulouse and I know they finished in 8th position in the league last season but if you watch them play, they’re certainly one of the best teams in Europe. Their size, speed and offload ability; trying to find a weakness in how they play is very difficult. They have probably the best number nine in the world [in Antoine Dupont], so it’s a challenge, but that’s a motivation in itself. We’re in a different competition and in the Quarter-Final of the Heineken Champions Cup. There’s going to be a crowd there which is awesome, even if it is 5,000 Toulouse supporters. We’ll be motivated for that and look forward to that challenge.”
Since qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup play-offs, the coaching team has been keeping a keen eye on Ulster’s Quarter-Final opponents.
“As coaches, we’ve done our work on them and will have a look at their game against La Rochelle. We’ve done our homework on them and over the next few days we’ll mix in a review of the final with what we need to improve for what’s relevant in the Toulouse game. We’ll put together what we know about them for a game plan to go over and win that game.
“It would be nicer to go into this game off the back of a win rather than a loss, but that’s sport. Unless you wear a blue jersey, a lot of teams do lose games. We’ve had a number of tough games this season, so we can say we’re battle-hardened going into this game.”
When asked about what his young players will take from playing in a final and how they will use this to go on and win silverware, McFarland’s message is simple.
“We just have to keep improving. [Playing in a final] will be valuable experience for this young squad. I thought James Hume had his best game of the season so far and Tom O’Toole was excellent. For those guys, they’re the green shoots in our organisation. We’ve got a number of other guys coming through and I’d hope at the start of the next season – due to the nature of it that games are so dense – we’ll see some more guys coming through.”