McFarland and Ulster looking forward to testing Leinster again
Coach hoping absent Stockdale and Best will be fit for quarter-final clash with Connacht
Dan McFarland: “Rory [Best] won’t be fit this week but we are hoping that he’ll be fit for the quarter-final.” Photograph: Craig Watson/Inphpo
Although Saturday is a dead rubber for both sides – with much-altered line-ups expected – there was little prospect of Ulster head coach Dan McFarland glibly dismissing this meeting with Leinster or, indeed, sidestepping further comment on matters pertaining to Jacob Stockdale and Rory Best.
Even though McFarland’s squad have their Pro14 quarter-final at home to Connacht on Saturday week to dominate their thoughts, hosting Champions Cup holders and finalists Leinster is still being seen as significant for the northern province’s momentum.
Of rather more pressing concern for McFarland is Stockdale’s hamstring – he limped off in the bonus point win at Edinburgh, earlier this month, which secured second place, and a home play-off, in the Pro14’s Conference B – and whether Best will also feature for a last, and undoubtedly emotional, Kingspan farewell when Connacht come to Belfast for knockout rugby.
“We’re going to keep monitoring him week on week,” McFarland said of Stockdale, who won’t be featuring this weekend, “But there are definitely fears for [him making] the Connacht game.
“Rory won’t be fit this week but we are hoping that he’ll be fit for the quarter-final. I really hope that he’s able to lead the team out at Kingspan one last time. I’m really hopeful that he’ll be able to do that and that’s just on a personal level, not even on a team level,” added McFarland.
And commenting for the first time regarding Best’s announcement, last week, that he will completely retire from the game after the World Cup, McFarland said: “[It was] Rory’s decision.
“When he said it to me he said, ‘I want to go out on my own terms.’ I admire that. I can only imagine how tough that decision was. When I made that decision, it wasn’t mine. Michael Bradley [the then Connacht coach] called me aside and told me it was probably time.
“He was right, it was time. But Rory, that’s a big decision for him. [The term] legend is used, an Ulster legend, an Ireland legend, I’m not a big one for hyperbole but that’s appropriate in this case.
“He understands that he wants to go out where he knows he is playing his best rugby. That’s his decision,” stated the Ulster head coach.
Regarding Saturday’s game, coming just short of a month after Ulster took Leinster to the wire in an epic Champions Cup quarter-final, McFarland spoke of how it matters to Ulster to seize the day, even though they will, understandably, be diluted for this final Pro14 regular season game.
As he explained: “It may not have the meaning where you need points to get to a certain position in the league, but it certainly has meaning in itself.”
Darren Cave is likely to skipper the side on what could be his final Kingspan appearance before retirement – and, if so, leave him on 227 games for Ulster, two shy of Andrew Trimble’s record – while flanker Marcus Rea seems set for a senior debut while utility back David Busby may get a run-out for the first time in nearly a year due to injury.
With just four fit props left, Marty Moore’s season having ended against Edinburgh, McFarland also indicated that both Peter Cooper and Ireland U-20s Grand Slam winner Callum Reid – both, essentially, AIL players – may well be involved this weekend.
“Momentum is important definitely,” he stated of Ulster’s desire to win before facing Connacht. “It will really test our squad. That’s what they [Leinster] do all the time, that’s how they run their squad. We’re not there yet but we want to get there by utilising your whole squad throughout the year.
“We’ve used 47 players in the Pro14 this year but that will probably go up over 50 this weekend.”