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'Harsh but true': Ulster coach explains review of Harlequins escape ahead of return Champions Cup tie

Harlequins v Ulster, Champions Cup Pool Three: The Stoop, Friday, 7.45pm

Taken down: Ulster’s Iain Henderson is tackled by Alex Dombrandt and Chris Robshaw of Harlequins
Taken down: Ulster’s Iain Henderson is tackled by Alex Dombrandt and Chris Robshaw of Harlequins
Roddy Grant
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Fewer than 48 hours had passed since the win over Harlequins when Ulster's squad reassembled yesterday for the coming weekend's reverse fixture.

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A game won only by virtue of a 79th-minute penalty by John Cooney, head coach Dan McFarland had allowed a measure of frustration to seep into his post-match comments, admitting his side had to ensure they were demonstrably better before facing the same opposition on Friday night (7.45pm kick-off) in London.

The margins in Champions Cup rugby are finer than ever. While Ulster were thankful for the needless late penalty conceded by their visitors, the nine-point deficit they'd had to overcome was the product of a fine intercept from Alex Dombrandt on the try-line that essentially provided a two-score swing.

McFarland is therefore wise to focus upon the process rather than outcome despite the stark contrast between the celebrations in the stands and the tone of the coach's box.

Player descriptions of yesterday's video review ranged from "interesting" to "harsh" which drew a chuckle from the coaching team's forwards specialist Roddy Grant.

"Players will always say that while coaches will say it was frank," he laughed. "It's important to highlight things that didn't go well, especially in this unique situation when you play the same team again this week.

"Things that didn't go well, you definitely have to get right this week because it's not like you play another team and you might get away with it (again). If things didn't go well they're not going to go well again unless you fix them obviously as it's the same opposition.

"There are certain areas of the game where we need to be a lot better and I guess those are the things that were maybe harsh. Harsh but true.

"Regardless of the result, if action or performance standards weren't good they need to be highlighted and go pretty hard at.

"After a win it makes it easier because you can always have the harsher things balanced with the positive message.

"If something didn't go that well or there were things you weren't that happy with they have to be said and if there are positive things to put with it you can add them in."

Sure to have been the focus of Grant's attention during a second scrutiny of the tape will have been the breakdown. With former England captain Chris Robshaw especially prominent at ruck time, the number of turnovers are a puzzle that requires solving.

"There was a lot of really good stuff but there were six breakdown turnovers that came," Grant reflected. "It was individual errors which was the frustrating thing that we were off the pace or we were there too slowly, we were stripped in contact.

"We were tackled into touch three times as a ball-carrier. Little things like that are big. You'll never get good breakdown if off in those areas."

While there was an assumption that Harlequins had perhaps been better than anticipated - "They've got some really good players that caused us trouble, perhaps we didn't expect that," McFarland offered - Grant was left frustrated by the success of the threats he had flagged in the build-up.

"It was a tough game and clearly we didn't do what we intended to do," he said. "Harlequins were very good and the guys who we thought would play well played very well.

"We let guys who we knew would be good like Robshaw, who we previewed, get in and over ball rather than making it difficult for them.

"Robshaw is a very clever and intelligent player. He's good over ball, he's got good nous. The rest of the back-row was physical, as we thought they would be. Dombrandt and Kunatani are very physical and as coaches we were aware of that in the build-up to the game. Their back-row were all physical and good at the breakdown and carrying. That's what makes them good, they do what they're good at and we didn't do as we wanted."

Still, the win kept the side top of Pool Three with 12 points at the halfway stage of the groups and on course for a second consecutive quarter-final berth.

The game at The Stoop this weekend is pivotal. Lose, and the province would surely have to beat Clermont in France just for an away quarter-final. Sweep the back-to-backs for a third consecutive year and they have one foot in the last-eight.

"Game four, if you don't do well in game four, it makes it difficult going forward," Grant added. "You need to win as many games as you can but it always comes down to that last game, however the pool works out."

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