Dan McFarland reflects on a job well done
'Two years in a row we won five pool games and booked ourselves a quarter-final'
Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune scores his side’s second try. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
In the event, the end of Munster’s forlorn hopes of making the knock-out stages came swiftly. Glasgow’s bonus point win over Sale by 45-7, with their fourth try coming seven minutes into the second half, sealed Munster’s exit after the pool stages for the only the fourth time in the last 22 years.
Munster’s best chance of being given a slight lifeline before their final pool game against the Ospreys at Thomond Park lay, more realistically, in Lyon beating Northampton at home. The French side led 17-5 half-time to give Munster real hope, and regained the lead to be 24-22 ahead entering the last 10 minutes before two late tries sealed a bonus point 36-24 win which leaves the Saints well placed to qualify.
Earlier, a “very happy” Dan McFarland hailed Ulster’s achievement in reaching the knock-out stages for the second year in a row with their hard-earned 22-15 win over Bath at the Kingspan Stadium.
“Two years in a row we won five pool games and booked ourselves a quarter-final. Last week I was a little bit disappointed we didn’t get a home quarter-final. For a club at the stage we’re at to be able to say that we’re a top eight team in Europe two years in a row - I’d be pretty happy.”
Ulster are likely to face Exeter, Toulouse or Racing away from home in the quarter-finals and although they put Leinster to the pin of their collars in an epic quarter-final last season in the Aviva Stadium, McFarland believes they are better equipped 12 months on.
“If we play as well as we can we’re in a better position definitely. But if we don’t we’re not far away from losing comfortably. I think our attack shape and our ability to prise open defences is better now. I think our defence is definitely better now. Our kicking and our aerial game had progressed in the last two months albeit last week, and the week before, it wasn’t great.”
“Today John’s kicking I thought was exceptional,” he said of his scrum-half John Cooney. “So I think yes, at the top of our game I think we are. I don’t think we can win a quarter-final away from home - statistically it would tell us we can’t, or are less likely to, unless we are at our absolute best.”
McFarland confirmed prop Tom O’Toole suffered a rib injury. “We won’t know how that is until we get it assessed through the week. He’s a tough . . . I was going to use a swear word there because it’s suitable for Tom but he is a tough, tough individual, so I’m sure he’ll have no problem.”
The Ulster coach also said the departure of another of the province’s eight-strong contingent in the Irish Six Nations squad, Will Addison, went off as a precautionary measure.
“Will carried a little bit of a calf through last week and it was more precautionary than anything. I think he was tightening up a little bit but it’s nothing too bad.”
“They looked good, didn’t they? Jacob, as well, I thought looked good tonight. Bar his charge down, some of his kicking was exceptional, it’s really long and he has a massive boot on him. Very Rob Kearney-esque and he runs hard and obviously created a couple of opportunities for us just because he’s such a threat. The Cat is a danger whenever he gets the ball because he’s just so rapid. He’s got next-level speed and when you add all the tools that he has around that and bear in mind that he’s 22-years-old and he’s pretty new to the game.
“His skills around his defensive understanding, his physicality in defence, and obviously his attacking awareness, he’s a good prospect.”
Confirming his nickname, McFarland said: “That’s what he’s called. Robert Baloucoune, the Cat. Sorry about that, Robert.”
They were the bright sparks in a weary-looking performance, and McFarland rejected the notion that the pressure of trying to seal qualification affected his team’s performance.
“No, I actually don’t think it was that at all. I reckon we didn’t play very well in the first half, potentially, because we overestimated our ability to control the game, which was confirmed when we scored reasonably early. It was very un-us. Early on, we lost a couple of collisions, which was going to be a big focus for us like it is most weeks. Ben Obano took the ball over the gainline on a couple of occasions and we looked like we were quite passive there and I thought, ‘This is really unusual for us.’
“I think they won the first three scraps where the ball bounced on the floor and that demonstrated to me they were really hungry when they came here, and again that’s unusual for us to lose those scraps. Then, with their boring us to death with their kicking game and having an injury every 30 seconds it took the steam out of the game, and the crowd gets frustrated, we get frustrated, which is compounded with us making elementary errors, and I think that’s probably led to what you’re talking about.”