McFarland plays down Stockdale error as one of many Ulster mistakes

Coach admits 22-year-old’s error stood out but insists it did not cost Ulster the game

Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale at the end of the European Champions Cup quarter-final match at Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA Wire

Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale at the end of the European Champions Cup quarter-final match at Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA Wire

 

Leinster 21 
Ulster 18

In many respects Ulster, team and estimated 15,000 supporters alike, made this the game of the season. But in dealing with all manner of adversity as well as inspired opponents by digging deep like true champions, Leinster can and should take a huge amount from this.

Ulster, as suspected they would, had a right good go, and died with their boots on. They rattled Leinster’s cage and more than a few rib cages with the ferocity of their line speed, which earned them an initial seven-pointer.

Best of all, when falling 18-13 behind in the 54th minute, rather than roll over, they put Leinster through three brutal defensive sets before drawing level when being rewarded for going to the corner. Luke Marshall, of all people, scored with his second carry one minute into his return from over 10 months on the sidelines for what he admitted was “a bittersweet day” for him.

Ultimately, Leinster had the nous to turn to their maul for Ross Byrne to heroically land the match-winning penalty before hobbling off with a cramp in his left leg. Finally, Leinster pounded a punch-drunk Ulster through 44 phases on to the ropes, before being content to take a points victory rather than summon up a knock-out blow. And all of this was played out to the kind of din and colour rarely heard or seen on Six Nations days.

Constant threat

There were so many contenders for man of the match, officially awarded to Jack Conan in light of his try-creating break and offload to Adam Byrne as one of his 12 carries, to go with 16 tackles.

There was also James Ryan (21 carries, 27 tackles) and Rhys Ruddock (16 and 17), not to mention the constant running threat of Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour, a big game by Cian Healy and more besides.

Despite missing his last conversion, John Cooney was simply outstanding, coming off the Six Nations with his confidence sky high. Dwayne Peel devised an attacking game plan which also gave ample scope to Cooney’s relatively under-appreciated running game, while his passing, kicking and general game was superb.

There was also a monster effort from Jordi Murphy (17 carries, 22 tackles) and huge shifts by Kieran Treadwell, Stuart McCloskey, Iain Henderson, Nick Timoney and Rob Herring, while the fearless Michael Lowry was always positive and dangerous.

Leinster’s Ross Byrne reacts after kicking a penalty to take the lead against Ulster in the Champions Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Leinster’s Ross Byrne reacts after kicking a penalty to take the lead against Ulster in the Champions Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Alas, an emotional rollercoaster of a game had more than its fair share of misfortune. Uppermost among these was the sight of Dan Leavy being taken off on a motorised stretcher after prolonged treatment for what seemed a serious knee injury.

No less sad was the sight of a disconsolate Rory Best being forced off with a twisted ankle before the first quarter had been completed, and the hope remains that this will not prove to be the 37-year-old’s last appearance for Ulster.

Then there was the Jacob Stockdale moment in the 45th minute which so dominated the post-match discussion. The 22-year-old left winger won’t have slept well after losing control of the ball when attempting to touch down one-handed to stretch Ulster’s lead to 18-11 with a touchline conversion to come.

A few things are worth mentioning here. Firstly, as Dan McFarland noted with his usual sangfroid, Ulster wouldn’t have been in the Aviva Stadium or any other venue on quarter-final weekend were it not for Stockdale’s uncanny ability to finish or conjure six tries in the pool stages.

Probably no other player in Ulster’s ranks would have been able to leave Adam Byrne, Larmour and Sean Cronin in his wake as Stockdale had done. Indeed, no player made more metres, beat more defenders or made more breaks in the match than Stockdale, who was also brilliant in the air. Credit also to Dave Kearney for tracking the play from the opposite wing and chasing down what seemed a lost cause.

Mistakes

“There were mistakes by everybody,” reasoned McFarland. “His mistake today stands out a little bit but it’s not the reason we lost the game. You could pick out any mistakes. You don’t know what happens off the back of these things. Put it like this, if you were to ask: ‘Jacob with a mistake, would you still play him? Or would you pick someone else who might not?’ No, of course you’d play him. Okay? We’re not even close if he’s not playing.”

Pressed further by what was described as a “very basic” error, McFarland countered: “First of all, I’ll ask you how do you know that’s basic? I have never been in that position where you have to beat four people and then score in the corner.

“He’s still unbelievably skilful and powerful to be able to get into that position. Whatever you say I’m just not going to say that Jacob is the person who cost us. I wouldn’t say that, because he isn’t. There’s plenty of other things.”

Most of all though, there were 35 minutes remaining, and who’s to say Leinster wouldn’t have found a way as they did anyway?

Sitting second in Conference B of the Pro14, somehow Ulster must go again away to Glasgow next Friday, before a crunch trek to Edinburgh and a re-union with Leinster in Belfast, knowing they’ll probably need one or most possibly two wins to ensure a place in the play-offs and next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.

“We have a quarter-finalist [Glasgow] of Champions Cup next week, a quarter-finalist [Edinburgh] the following week, then two weeks after that we have a semi-finalist [Leinster again],” noted McFarland. “People talk about other leagues in Europe, forget that, our conference is where it’s at, not even our league, our conference.

“It’s tough going, but in terms of the support staff, we’ve been preparing for this,” he added. “I’m hoping that this game just wets the taste buds for play-off rugby. We want to be consistently competing for championships, and before that you’ve got to be in the play-offs. We’ve got a tough task, but jeeze we’ll be hungry for it.”

Scoring sequence: 6 mins Treadwell try, Cooney con 0-7; 11 mins R Byrne try 5-7; 22 mins Cooney pen 5-10; 31 mins R Byrne pen 8-10; 35 mins R Byrne pen 11-10; 39 mins Cooney pen 11-13; (half-time 11-13); 54 mins A Byrne try, R Byrne con 18-13; 64 mins Marshall try 18-18; 72 mins R Byrne pen 21-18.

LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Rory O’Loughlin, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Scott Fardy, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock (capt), Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan. Replacements: Noel Reid for O’Loughlin (half-time), Dan Leavy for O’Brien (52 mins), James Tracy for Cronin, Ed Byrne for Healy (both 58 mins), Jamison Gibson-Park for L McGrath (58-66 mins), Mick Kearney for Leavy (63 mins), Andrew Porter for Furlong (67 mins), Rob Kearney for R Byrne (73 mins).

ULSTER: Michael Lowry; Rob Baloucoune, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best (capt), Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee. Replacements: Rob Herring for Best (17 mins), Sean Reidy for Coetzee (52 mins), Wiehahn Herbst for Moore (56 mins), Luke Marshall for Cave (63 mins), Andy Warwick for O’Sullivan (72 mins). Not used _ Alan O’Connor, David Shanahan, Angus Kernohan.

Referee: Romain Poite (France)

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