McFarland and Ulster braced for make-or-break in Leicester

Province eager to take another major step towards ending a 15-year trophy famine

Dan McFarland: “This is our semi-final. There’s a group of lads here who just want to be in the final, that’s it. It’s not about responsibility for anyone’s doings in the past.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dan McFarland: “This is our semi-final. There’s a group of lads here who just want to be in the final, that’s it. It’s not about responsibility for anyone’s doings in the past.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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As everybody in the Ulster set-up is acutely aware, it’s been 15 years since the province last lifted silverware.

So while it may be merely the European Challenge Cup, that 15-year gap crystallises the opportunity which comes with this Friday’s semi-final against Leicester Tigers in Welford Road (kick-off 8pm).

To win a trophy would be a significant benchmark for Ulster, all the more so to do it without their departed talisman for the last three seasons, Marcell Coetzee.

“Someone described it as a monkey on our back as a club and my answer has been that I’m not carrying anyone else’s monkey,” said Dan McFarland yesterday.

“This is our semi-final. There’s a group of lads here who just want to be in the final, that’s it. It’s not about responsibility for anyone’s doings in the past, it’s about responsibility for our doings.

“Our goal is to be consistently competing for championships and we’re in the process of doing that. We’re in a semi-final, we’ve put ourselves into a position to make a final. We’ve framed the challenge, we know how difficult that is and whatever competition you’re playing in at this point. We’re relishing it.”

Since Ulster’s 2005-06 Celtic League success, they have reached one Champions Cup final and four quarter-finals, and five semi-finals and two finals in the Pro14. Seven of those dozen knock-out defeats have been by Leinster, who have gobbled up four Heineken Cups, seven Pro14s and one Challenge Cup since 2006.

You can’t take anything from Connacht’s intent, they came here with intent and they played really well

“What would it mean to be in the final? It would be awesome, it would mean we’re still competing for championships. There are a lot of guys that want that. We’ve a lot of guys here who haven’t done that, who have had limited opportunities to win silverware at this level.

“There’s only one team in each competition that can do it. It’s a rarity, especially when one team hoovers up most of the silver anyway. It’s great that we’re in there competing.”

Not even Leinster win every week and as also with Leicester, beaten at home last Saturday by East Midlands rivals Northampton, so Ulster also lost a home derby against Connacht last Friday.

“It’s professional sport, we move on,” said McFarland, his post-match anger having abated.

“It’s not only another match, it’s a different competition. Perspective is everything. We lost a game of rugby and we’re disappointed with the way we played. You can’t take anything from Connacht’s intent, they came here with intent and they played really well,” said McFarland, noting that Connacht struggled with the physical challenge posed by Leicester in the last 16 round.

Collision game

McFarland pinpointed how his team have to deal with the Tigers’ set-piece, aerial game and “hard runners”. They also have to bring their own ‘A’ game.

We’ve some good looseheads but the bottom line is that Jack is a British Lion, he’s a serial winner, his attitude is that of a serial winner

“If we can play with the speed that we know we can play with, I would hope that it would cause them trouble as we hope it causes most teams trouble. In order to do that we have to get our collision game going. We win collisions slightly differently than Leicester would, and if we can do that we’ll cause them trouble.”

He also highlighted Ulster’s own kicking game, while noting “we may decide that the counterattack and moving the ball is a better option”, and their renowned maul.

“I think it’ll be really important that we get some phases in possession and a bit of speed so that we can unleash some of the talented runners that we have.”

Meanwhile Jack McGrath, who hasn’t played since January, has undergone surgery and will thus remain sidelined indefinitely.

“He’s definitely a big miss on the pitch. We’ve some good looseheads but the bottom line is that Jack is a British Lion, he’s a serial winner, his attitude is that of a serial winner. He knows what needs to be done on a personal level, he knows what needs to be done in a team environment.”

McGrath is currently recovering from his operation in England, and McFarland revealed: “He sent me a picture of his scar and I think he did it deliberately because he knows I’m squeamish about that sort of thing. Adam McBurney told him.

“He missed training one morning to have two teeth pulled and sent me a picture of the two bleeding teeth in the dentist. I was nearly sick and got really angry so I think McBurney put him up to it.”

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