'Boom. Game over.': Ulster must show united front to block a devastating Clermont burst, says McFarland
When Ulster first met Munster in the PRO14 this season, a 22-16 win for the hosts at Thomond Park in November, what was a largely impressive defensive performance on a ground they had shipped a record score a year prior was ultimately to be in vain when the offensive side of the game plan failed to click.
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Against Bath and Clermont in Europe over the following fortnight, the games were won but it was a similar story in attack where timing and rhythm were still proving just a fraction off.
Since then, however, there's been a marked contrast, with Friday night's victory over the southern province marking the fifth time in their past six games that Dan McFarland's side have collected the four-try bonus.
While the defence has remained solid, Ulster have now scored the second most tries in the PRO14, trailing only runaway leaders Leinster, and are some six scores ahead of their own nearest challengers Edinburgh.
While the initial legs of their festive flurry came against a Leinster side already assured of victory and an injury-ravaged Connacht, to cross the whitewash five times against a Munster outfit who travelled north with what was then the stingiest defence in the league was certainly an eye-catching display.
"Obviously you've got to be pleased," said McFarland of a game when the bonus point arrived courtesy of man-of-the-match Stuart McCloskey before the hour mark. "Munster are a quality team, (on) both sides of the ball they really tested us.
"Our attack was going to have to be really good to get points off them, they have the best record in the PRO14 and Champions Cup defensively.
"We were going to have to be pretty astute in the way we attacked it and sharp in what we were doing, and there was going to have to be an improvement in what we were doing in previous weeks."
Most pleasing to McFarland was the execution of the game plan with the first try from John Cooney - a counter-attack from a box-kick claim that saw Jacob Stockdale sear into space down the blindside - the product of attack coach Dwayne Peel's midweek observations.
"Fair play, Dwayne put a really good plan together," McFarland added. "Our first try came off exactly what he'd shown the lads and explained what we needed to do, and they executed it perfectly.
"A couple of the set-plays worked really well and then the players on the pitch had to do the job as well."
Now nearing the end of a 13-week run of consecutive games that will have included four inter-pros and six European contests, Ulster are primed to go into the Six Nations break sitting pretty in both the PRO14 and Champions Cup provided they can win one of their next two games against Clermont and then Bath as they return to continental competition.
The trip to the Stade Marcel Michelin comes first with an early afternoon kick-off on Saturday (1pm UK time) where a win would not just have the province almost assured of a spot in the last-eight but also in the box seat to host a quarter-final. Despite Saturday's loss to Racing 92 in Paris, Les Jaunards remain one of the most fearsome sides in Europe, especially at home where Ulster have lost twice in two visits.
"We'll do a little bit of a review on the Munster game but it'll be quickly onto Clermont," said McFarland of his plan for today. "The biggest thing when you go to a side like that, as it was when we went to Racing last year, it's got to be your collective that is strong.
"You have to work well as a team because the moment any kind of fracture lines appear in that collective, they will expose them. They can do it from 80 metres out, 60 metres out, and Clermont score in bursts. You'll see three tries in 10 minutes and that's it. Boom. Game over.
"So your collective has to be strong and it has to be consistently strong. There isn't much new about that for us, it's something that we're consistently talking about, but it's particularly the case when you play one of those star-studded French teams."
No doubt with the strength of opposition in mind, McFarland is keen to keep his side's collective feet on the ground. A four from four start in this pool still has them just one point ahead of their weekend's opponents who have romped to try-bonus points in both of their games in the Auvergne and sit top of the competition's try scoring charts with 20 scores so far.
"We've got hard games to come," he added plainly. "We're not getting ahead of ourselves. We are by no means the finished article. We have to go to one of the most dangerous teams in Europe this week and, in terms of an attacking threat, arguably the most dangerous team given the individuals they have.
"It will be a huge test. Both the teams in our group that have gone there this year have had 50s put on them and these are not nobody teams, it's Bath and Harlequins."