Ulster coach Dan McFarland strikes a defiant tone despite poor restart

Province head to Murrayfield for Pro 14 semi-final after losses to Connacht and Leinster

Jacob Stockdale is a doubt for Ulster’s Pro 14 semi-final clash with Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Saturday night. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jacob Stockdale is a doubt for Ulster’s Pro 14 semi-final clash with Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Saturday night. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

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It’s not exactly how Ulster would have envisaged their approach towards Saturday evening’s Pro 14 semi-final with Edinburgh at Murrayfield (kick-off 7.35).

The indifferent post-lockdown form they have shown in both interprovincials, through the lacklustre reverse to Connacht and the somewhat more energetic but still error-riddled showing when losing to Leinster last Saturday have been compounded by the growing number of injuries the squad are shipping to key personnel.

There are doubts now surrounding the fitness of Jacob Stockdale – one of the few Ulster players to have shown some form since games began again and following his relocation to fullback – and Stuart McCloskey, who both suffered what have been described as contusions (bruising) last Saturday evening at the Aviva Stadium forcing both off the field.

I know there’s a hunger in the squad this year and I know the difficulty of what’s in front of us but we want to give a better shot than we did last year

Flanker Jordi Murphy’s involvement is also hanging in the balance after he picked up a concussion early against Leinster that forced him off and he is currently following the return to play protocols.

With skipper Iain Henderson, Will Addison, Sean Reidy, Robert Baloucoune and Luke Marshall already sidelined before Ulster even began the process of completing last season’s pandemic-shortened calendar, there is no hiding from the uncomfortable fact that Dan McFarland has rather more problems – throw in the Coronavirus hitting members of the Academy squad last week – than he would have liked as he leads the northern province into a second successive Pro 14 semi-final.

“We’re up for it, I don’t care how difficult it is,” McFarland said in relation to other challenging factor of bucking the general trend by winning an away semi-final and, for Ulster, reaching a first final since 2013.

We were knocked over by the first wave and never got back to our feet, or not until it was too late

“I know there’s a hunger in the squad this year and I know the difficulty of what’s in front of us but we want to give a better shot than we did last year and put out a better performance.”

Indeed, just as Ulster prepare to take on Richard Cockerill’s much-improved Edinburgh this time around, there is the lingering memory that they were also badly undone at a semi-final in Scotland in May 2019 when Glasgow Warriors easily saw them off at Scotstoun.

“Last year was disappointing,” McFarland added in reference to meeting Glasgow and losing by a hefty 50-20.

“We were knocked over by the first wave and never got back to our feet, or not until it was too late.

“The disappointment [then] was that we didn’t play as well as we could have done. That really soured that experience for me,” he added.

The need to avoid another horror start – last Saturday they trailed Leinster 13-0 after 20 minutes – will be imperative if Ulster are to come out the right side of this weekend’s behind closed doors clash.

“It’s not a question of don’t do, it’s a question of focusing on what we have to do.

“We’ve won in Edinburgh and we’re a team capable of putting out a performance away from home,” added former Glasgow and Scotland assistant coach McFarland, who also has ex-Edinburgh forwards coach Roddy Grant on the Kingspan payroll.

Still, the odds do look somewhat weighed against the northern province.

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