McFarland demands Ulster victory over Benetton to keep PRO14 destiny in their own hands
Ulster v Benetton, Guinness PRO14: Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35 pm
After a week where talk surrounded staying or going in Europe, Champions Cup quarter-finalists Ulster are back to the bread and butter of the PRO14 this weekend.
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And while there will certainly be less wider interest, not least with the Irish contingent in Portugal with Joe Schmidt ahead of the Six Nations, Friday night's clash with Benetton at Kingspan has some continental connotations of its own.
For all the excitement generated by the wins over Racing 92 and Leicester Tigers, and the banking of a first last-eight spot in five years, Dan McFarland's men have lost back-to-back domestic games for the second time this season, festive inter-pro reverses dropping them from second in Conference B down to fifth.
While there is just two points between themselves and Edinburgh, it presently represents the difference between hosting a play-off game in the first round of the PRO14 knockouts and a failure to qualify for next season's Champions Cup.
With Leinster all but assured of top spot, and Dragons and Southern Kings out of the mix, the remainder of the slate looks to be a straight fight between four teams for two automatic Champions Cup spots.
The third side at least has the consolation of the play-off which Ulster came through last year, but the fourth will be consigned to the Challenge Cup.
McFarland, who has little opportunity to dwell on the achievement of guiding Ulster back to the European knockout stages at his first attempt, reflected: "We're in a conference with three Champions Cup quarter-finalists in it, so it doesn't get much tougher than that.
"Seven teams, three Champions Cup quarter-finalists and we're fighting over three places (for next season), one of which has probably already been taken. Scarlets are a team that were semi-finalists last year in the Champions Cup and Treviso sit two points ahead of us now and are much better than they were two years ago.
"It doesn't really get tougher than that."
As such, games between two of the quartet like Friday night take on an added significance. Having won in Treviso earlier this season, as well as beating Edinburgh and Scarlets at home weighed against one loss in Llanelli, Ulster have been doing well in this regard and know another win, if only temporarily, would have them back in the all-important top three.
"If you can beat a team twice in your conference, really your destiny is in your own hands," added McFarland.
"If we don't win against Treviso this weekend, finishing ahead of Treviso is no longer in our hands, it'll be in theirs.
"Kieran Crowley has done a great job there and we have to win this game this weekend.
"I say we have to win, we don't have to, but that's how we see it.
"It's a very important game for us."
Benetton have 19 players in the Italian camp with Conor O'Shea that wraps up tomorrow, and another three who would have been if not for injury or personal reasons. It's not clear how many will be released to Kiwi coach Kieran Crowley to make the trip to Belfast but the Six Nations will certainly impact McFarland's selection.
With five of his squad - Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale, Jordi Murphy, John Cooney and Will Addison - absent, and Iain Henderson only failing to join them thanks to a new hand injury, major changes to the panel from last weekend will be required, especially in the back-row.
Already without Murphy, both Marcell Coetzee and Sean Reidy picked up knocks in Welford Road with the latter requiring surgery on his hand.
That leaves Ulster without their usual starting back-row, with only Nick Timoney left as a player who has been handed regular minutes.
With Chris Henry and Jean Deysel both having retired over the course of the season, Greg Jones and Clive Ross are the only other players with decent senior experience to call upon.
Given McFarland's faith in youth this season though, it would be no surprise to see Caleb Montgomery given another chance after his recent debut against Leinster, while six of the Academy squad are loose forwards or capable of playing there.
"It's often down to positional issues when guys have to step up and I'm sure that'll be the case this time," said McFarland.
"We used 34 players in the Champions Cup and I think nine of those were either first year professionals or Academy players. We're used to young fellas stepping up and it'll be no different going forward now."