McFarland questions European squad deadline as Ulster count cost of Kings victory
Ulster 33 Southern Kings 19
If Dan McFarland had made out a wishlist before last weekend's game with Southern Kings, it likely would have only stretched to two items.
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First up would have been to secure five points with his only other concern to do so without sustaining any injuries to jeopardise his plans for Saturday's Champions Cup quarter-final with Leinster.
In the end he only got half of what he hoped for.
The northern province handled the threat of the free-running South Africans with relative ease and had wrapped up their bonus point by the 50th minute of the contest thanks to tries from Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle, Marcell Coetzee and Robert Baloucoune.
Substitute hooker John Andrew, who had replaced the excellent Rob Herring, went over late on from a maul but the losses of Louis Ludik, Marty Moore and Darren Cave to knocks over the course of the 80 minutes add to a cloudy selection picture for the last eight trip to the Aviva Stadium.
Will Addison and Craig Gilroy both seem set to be ruled out of the game with back injuries while there remains a sweat over Iain Henderson's involvement due to a knee injury sustained against France in the Six Nations.
Should Cave and Ludik be added to the injured list, and Addison be absent, quite who will partner Stuart McCloskey in the midfield becomes something of a mystery.
James Hume and Angus Curtis are already on the known absentees while Academy centre Stewart Moore is registered with the EPCR but yet to make his senior bow. Luke Marshall is fit after an ACL injury but hasn't played any rugby since May.
"I have got to wait and see but you saw the same as me and it did not look good," said McFarland of Saturday's fresh injuries.
"We will have to assess the injuries and see how Louis is and how Darren is. Obviously James is out. We'll have a look at Lukey and see how he's going on."
Both Hume and Marshall were added to the European squad only last week when the deadline for changing the panel from the pools for the knock-outs was set. McFarland admitted that under the circumstances more time to decide upon his options would have been valuable.
"With James, he wasn't in our original squad for one reason or another but then he started playing really well and we put him in the squad last week," he said.
"Then four days later he's out, that was difficult. It would have been handier if those registrations could have been later but I'm not privy to the reasons why (they aren't). I'm sure they have a good reason why they do it at that stage but just from our point of view it would have been great if it had been a bit later."
While Leinster have injury problems of their own - Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner and Josh van der Flier are all expected absent - given their standing at the top of the PRO14, they had the luxury of sending an under-strength side to Edinburgh with no concern over how the result would dent their league position.
While Leo Cullen's men lost in Murrayfield, they know that whatever happens between now and the play-offs, they'll be hosting a semi-final.
McFarland noted that, given the four-way battle for the two play-off spots remaining, he had no real option to go similarly light last weekend.
"I think it is a question of the context," he said. "Leinster are top, so in the context of the conference itself it does not matter even if it obviously matters to them that they lost in Edinburgh and they'll be disappointed in that.
"They were playing a very strong Edinburgh side and they were able to rest a lot of their players.
"For us we are in a different position, we are in a ridiculously difficult conference where there is a fight going on and we needed to make sure that we got the maximum points.
"The other aspect to that is that it is not a question of not playing a lot of our players, we do not have as big a squad, guys step up and they play."
While the focus has swiftly changed to Europe, the weekend win completes an impressive run in the PRO14 for Ulster. Having been depleted by the Six Nations for the past two months, the side took 21 points from a possible 25 and sit second only to Leinster with three games to go. For McFarland, who has all year stressed a desire to keep their destiny in their own hands, it's been a pleasing international window.
"(Now) if we win, and continue to win, we'll advance," he said. "In the forefront of our minds is that we have to go to Glasgow, we have to go to Edinburgh, and we've the best team in Europe (Leinster) in the last game of the season."