Dan McFarland and Ulster relish the perfect tonic of victory
Head coach Dan McFarland admits his team have plenty of room for improvement
Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale scoring a try against the Leicester Tigers at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Ulster 24 Leicester Tigers 10
The relief was palpable. Saturday has long since ceased to be prime time viewing for paying spectators, but the empty spaces in a sodden Kingspan Stadium also reflected the dampened expectations hereabouts. After the record rout to Munster and first loss in 58 years at home to Connacht, Ulster desperately needed this win.
One imagines no one felt the pressure more than the recently-installed head coach Dan McFarland. A clever man, highly regarded within coaching circles, McFarland has cut his teeth in Ireland and Scotland before stepping up to this tough task as the season started.
Unlike others, he wanted this job, but had Ulster lost this one it would have made for a long week in the build-up to next Saturday’s imposing tie in Racing 92’s la Defense Arena, and possibly a long season.
He has always come across as calm, thoughtful, unassuming and dry witted, and post-match here was no different. When asked if he felt more pressure in his first Heineken Champions Cup game as head coach, he said: “Absolutely no doubt. I’m sat here; my assistants are downstairs enjoying a Heineken! It’s as simple as that.”
Asked what else was different about being a head coach, he said: “More people in here [the press room]. I’ve got another interview after this and another one after that. Apart from that, not really.
“I’m still learning. Every day is a learning day. I’m getting more accustomed to it, and I’m looking forward to going downstairs and chatting with Geordan Murphy and finding out how he’s getting on, his experiences and sharing and learning off each other.”
While pleased with the result and the effort expended by his players, McFarland readily admitted there was plenty more room for improvement.
Both head coaches cited the heavy penalty count in the home side’s favour (14-6), and certainly Murphy and his Tigers can feel more aggrieved about Pascal Gauzère’s refereeing. Gauzère also contributed to Rory Best charging down George Ford’s drop goal attempt at the end of a poor first-half by positioning himself in the line of Ben Youngs’ pass.
With Best also opting for attacking line-outs rather than shots at goal, Ulster had 11 first-half line-outs in the Leicester half (and 18 in total) but either through impatience or inaccuracy drew a first-half blank.
“There will be occasions where I think we maybe look at changing momentum in games, but I was happy with those decisions,” said McFarland, who admitted Ulster need to sharpen their game in the opposition 22.
Indeed, while Murphy lamented “three or four” occasions when the Tigers turned over the ball in the Ulster 22, McFarland noted: “I think we turned the ball over nine times in their 22 in the first half. That tells you two things; one we are doing something right, and two we are doing something very wrong. That is something we have to improve on.”
McFarland was vindicated in playing a 20-year-old academy Michael Lowry at full-back even though he is nominally an out-half after two starts in the Pro14. Lowry coped manfully with an aerial bombardment (six up-and-unders in the first quarter alone) and although spilling one in the build-up to Ford’s opening penalty he finished handsomely in credit.
Denied by Ford’s covering tackle around the neck (which earned Ford a yellow) after supporting Addison’s brilliant broken field break, and again when straightening through in the second-half, Lowry finished the game with a try-saving tackle on the Tigers’ 20-year-old European debutant and English Under-20 World Cup star Jordan Olowofela.
“It is not a big call,” said McFarland. “You make a decision if you think a player has got the ability to play and improve your side. The guys know Michael well and I know him well from what I have seen off him so far. He is an exciting player, he is a confident player, he is a really good footballer with great skills.”
“The way we wanted to play, keeping the ball in play would have suited him. You have to have a certain amount of trust in terms of what he is going to do as the fullback. One thing we can certainly say about Michael Lowry, he is a brave young man.”
Despite the increasingly heavy rain, Ulster’s confidence returned after they finally converted a line-out into a try by Alan O’Connor. The classy Addison used his strength and footwork for the second and the increasingly influential Stuart McCloskey put Jacob Stockdale over for a third, before Manu Tuilagi’s try set up a helter-skelter hunt for a bonus point try at both ends of the pitch.
Ulster’s big guns stood up, not least Iain Henderson and John Cooney after seamlessly switching to out-half, and they held their nerve. Yet the nagging feeling remained that there was a bonus point for the taking here too.
“I am a glass half full person,” said McFarland, “so I will take the four points, and I will have a tiny little bit of froth on my glass half full that is disappointed.”
But he deserved that beer.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 15 mins Ford pen 0-3; (half-time 0-3); 44 mins O’Connor try, Cooney con 7-3; 59 mins Addison try, Cooney con 14-3; 69 mins Cooney pen 17-3; 72 mins Stockdale try, Cooney try 24-3; 76 mins Tuilagi try, Ford con 24-10.
ULSTER: M Lowry; C Gilroy, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Best (captain), R Kane; A O’Connor, I Henderson; M Coetzee, J Murphy, N Timoney.
Replacements: M Moore for Kane (34 mins), A Curtis for Burns (40-41 mins) E O’Sullivan for Warwick, S Reidy for Murphy (both 51 mins), K Treadwell for O’Connor (58 mins), D Shanahan for Burns (66 mins), A McBurney for Best (74 mins), A Kernohan for McCloskey (77 mins).
LEICESTER TIGERS: Jonah Holmes; Adam Thompstone, Manu Tuilagi, Kyle Eastmond, Jordan Olowofela; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Greg Bateman, Tom Youngs (captain), Dan Cole, Mike Williams, Harry Wells; Guy Thompson, Brendon O’Connor, Sione Kalamafoni.
Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau for T Youngs (54 mins), Sam Harrison for B Youngs, Matt Toomua for Eastmond (both 58 mins), Tommy Reffell for O’Connor (60 mins), David Feao for Bateman (63 mins), Joe Heyes for Cole (69 mins), Sam Lewis for Williams (77 mins), Gareth Owen for Tuilagi (78 mins).
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France).