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Pride and pain for McFarland as brave Ulster fall just short

Leinster 21 Ulster 18

Keep trying: Ulster’s Luke Marshall goes over the line to score
Keep trying: Ulster’s Luke Marshall goes over the line to score
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

As Ulster head coach Dan McFarland took his seat in the Aviva Stadium press room on Saturday evening he admitted to a mixture of emotions.

His bitter disappointment following his side's heartbreaking quarter-final defeat to Leinster was apparent, admitting that he'd entered into the away dressing room with his his head down after Ross Byrne's 71st-minute penalty had broken an 18-18 deadlock and saw last season's double-winners through to Europe's last four.

"Ultimately the scoreline says everything," said McFarland, who in his first season at the helm had guided the side back to this stage after a five season absence.

After what was the perhaps the most engrossing game of the season though, perhaps this was the rare occasion when the scoreline told only a fraction of the story.

Ulster were beaten but defied both the odds and a vast number of pundits who had them as 15-point underdogs up against their vastly more decorated neighbours.

Allied to a frenzied intensity, Ulster could, and should, have won the contest. They made light of losing their captain and talismanic leader Rory Best after only a quarter of an hour and, in McFarland's words, "surprised" the hosts with their physicality.

There were regrets - Jacob Stockdale's failure to ground ball when seemingly set to score another memorable Aviva Stadium try, an elaborate line-out move that ultimately resulted in a Leinster scrum penalty and John Cooney's missed conversion that would have given them a lead with 15 minutes to go - but it was a performance into which they poured everything.

They died with their boots on, so to speak. Beyond the two numbers on the scoreboard come the end of 80 absorbing minutes was the story of how Ulster reached a point of feeling genuine frustration at their failure to reach the last four in Europe.

To cast your mind back to how they even came to qualify for the competition in the first place is a stark contrast.

Requiring a play-off against Ospreys after a sub-par PRO14 campaign, the province were at their lowest ebb on the final day of their 2017/18 annus horribilis.

Including kit men, food vendors, freebies and everyone who bought a ticket but didn't turn up, the crowd stood at just a tick over 7,000. There was room for 10,000 more if only anyone could have been convinced into attending the undeniably pivotal clash.

While talks of mass protests against an ultimately departing regime failed to materialise, the province were met with a far more concerning emotion from the locals, apparent apathy.

For McFarland - buoyed by a seemingly renewed spirit and a host of promising young players - his impressive job of taking the side from there to here so quickly certainly seems to indicate that the side's fifth head man in five years is the right one for the job. Further reasons for optimism moving forward include Coetzee's previously unlikely contract extension and the added depth provided by Sam Carter's decision to sign up at Kingspan Stadium. More - namely Leinster's Lions prop Jack McGrath - are expected to confirm sooner rather than later that they'll be following suit.

Just ten months ago there were genuine concern that, beyond the few thousand die-hards, Ulster was a province falling out of love with their rugby team. Saturday felt like something akin to the first signpost on the road to recovery.

"I don't think this is the start," said McFarland. "We've been working on this... if you ask some of the players, a big turning point was Cardiff last year, they drew a line in the sand after that, and played magnificently at the end of last year.

"This year we're just building on that, perhaps with a few fresher and younger faces. You could look at this and see it's a huge game, but to me, it's just a step and we're just at the start of what I consider a long journey, hopefully to go a lot further.

"It's really difficult to take pride and be really disappointed at the same time. I'm certainly proud of the fact we got out of our pool, with five wins from six, but there are not many occasions you get to come to Aviva in front of 50-odd thousand fantastic fans, and come so close to winning. There's a pride in how we prepared and how we put that out on the pitch, but there's also a real disappointment in the knowledge we could have won that."

There was a cruel irony in the method of how they instead came to lose.

Cooney would likely have been man of the match had his side been victorious but his missed conversion, seemingly while cramping up, was undeniably a key momentum swing. Stuart McCloskey had the ball ripped from him, ultimately the knock-on giving Leinster a scrum, a penalty and three points. Coetzee, who had to pass a late fitness test just to take part gave Ross Byrne another of his successful shots at the post. Eric O'Sullivan missed a tackle on Jack Conan before Adam Byrne's score.

Regardless of the order, those four players are probably Ulster's best performers this season. Their showings on Saturday hardly deserved to be part of a losing effort, least of all with their isolated errors coming under the microscope.

The biggest moment though came from Stockdale. Having beaten three Leinster players, Ulster's highest profile home-grown star seemed sure to give his side a seven-point lead with a chance to make it a two-score game from the subsequent conversion.

But Dave Kearney got a grip of his arm, preventing him from finishing with two hands, while the decision not to dive for the line earlier loomed unmistakably large when a knock on in the in-goal area saw the score chalked off and Leinster awarded a five metre scrum.

There is no artistic license required to say without their scoring sensation's six pool stage tries, Ulster would have been idle last weekend.

"Whatever you say I'm just not going to say that Jacob is the person who cost us," said McFarland. "I wouldn't say that, because he isn't. There's plenty of other things.

"There were mistakes by everybody. His mistake stands out a little bit but as I say it's not the reason we lost the game. You could pick out any mistake.

"He's a magnificent player, and yes, he's young, very young. He'll only get better."

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