‘We’re playing bloody Toulouse in Toulouse’ - McFarland not focused on bigger haul

Ulster’s lead heading into the second leg could have been more if not for Ntamack

It says everything about this wildly fluctuating and entertaining game that as a throbbing Le Stadium finally calmed down in the searing heat both sides conducted a lap of honour and were warmly applauded. There was certainly plenty for both sides to feel good about, and also plenty of regrets.

Entering the endgame, Ulster led 26-13 against a Toulouse side reduced to 14 men in the 11th minute following a red card for their Argentinian winger Juan Cruz Mallia; a potentially very healthy lead to take back to a vibrant Kingspan Stadium for next Saturday's second leg (kick-off 8pm).

But entering the last minute, and having turned down any number of penalties at goal, Toulouse were rewarded for their attacking brio with a converted try by Romain Ntamack; possibly the most significant moment of the first leg.

They even threatened a remarkable comeback win when Thomas Ramos broke clear from inside his own 22 as 29 shattered players slugged it out to the end.

In any event, the dynamic of the tie had changed, for as Dan McFarland acknowledged, a one-score lead can be erased in the blink of any against any side with Antoine Dupont in its ranks.

“What am I going to do? Am I going to spend hours contemplating the fact that we could have had a larger advantage? Of course I’m not. We’re playing bloody Toulouse in Toulouse,” reasoned the Ulster coach, not unreasonably.

"We created opportunities to score more tries and for chunks of that game we were really good but it's Toulouse. This is a team that has said they're far more interested in Europe than their domestic competition this year. They're the champions of Europe, they're the champions of the Top 14 and they have a number of the best players in the world and we've come here and won a game 26-20. You've got to be proud of that.

“We’ll sit and we’ll analyse it we’ll see what we’ve got to do to win at home next week. We’re going to have to be a lot better if we want to prevail over the two legs because six points to Toulouse is nothing,” emphasised McFarland.

“It’s 15 seconds. Offloading and genius and speed and size, in 15 seconds it can be gone. We have to be on our game but for the time being we’ll accept that we scored four tries, played some really good rugby and a lot of guys stepped up who hadn’t experienced that level before and we’ll take confidence from that.”

Flying Baloucoune

In this regard, Robert Baloucoune shone with a smoothly taken hat-trick while inside him James Hume again oozed class, while amongst others Marty Moore, Nick Timoney and, although Rory Arnold did serious damage to the normally efficient Ulster line-out, Rob Herring had big games.

This contest undoubtedly pivoted on Mallia's deserved red card when he carelessly, and recklessly, took out an airborne Ben Moxham, who landed on his neck/head and had to depart for an HIA which he failed, with Toulouse leading 7-0 and ominously into their stride.

As appears to be almost commonplace lately, home team and crowd were galvanised by that, with Wayne Barnes becoming a pantomime villain thereafter for the febrile 28,000 capacity crowd. He was even escorted from the pitch and was booed on leaving the ground.

Ulster still trailed 13-7 at the break before making their advantage tell, and the crowd had implored the officials to decree Robert Baloucoune had been offside when intercepting Dupont’s pass for a breakaway try to complete his hat-trick.

"It's interesting," said McFarland of their numerical advantage. "We played Munster earlier this season when they had 14 men and ended up losing the game. I think the advantage of having one man more is less than people think."

McFarland recalled playing in a Richmond victory over Wasps when Scott Quinnell was sent off

“It really pulled us together and I see that time and time again. Today, when we did get the width and exploited the fact that they were a man down we were extremely potent. When we got caught in the middle of the field and there was a battle in some of those rucks we really suffered. At the end of the day, we prevailed.”

Long after the game was over, a pocket of Toulouse players were talking about Baloucoune, but as well as his first hat-trick since scoring four tries in an Under-19s game against Connacht, the winger made a dozen tackles, at least three of which were superb.

“How good was his defence? How good was that?” enthused McFarland. “Some of the plays there I’m watching him and his timing, his understanding of when he has to go, his double efforts, he’s literally covering everything. I thought he was excellent.

“In terms of finishing, he’s got what every winger wants which is top end speed. That’s different from other people. When set free you’ve seen it repeatedly how he does. He had one run today which we lost at the breakdown which from our perspective is absolutely criminal.

“But he’s a superb player, tremendous athlete and a really good rugby professional.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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