McFarland: Ulster need much more than just fighting spirit
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland believes it will take more than fight alone to get his side up to the standards he is demanding.
The former Connacht man has preached a "fight for every inch" mantra from the moment he arrived at Kingspan Stadium last summer but, after watching his side fall to a 40-7 loss against Leinster on Saturday evening, underlined that such efforts were the bare minimum he expects.
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Much like when suffering a record defeat at the hands of Munster earlier this season, there was no lack of endeavour from an under-strength panel but the gulf in quality between Ulster's second string and that of their neighbours was clear.
Leo Cullen's side ran in six tries in the contest, compared to just a mauled effort from hooker Adam McBurney for Ulster.
While the visitors were left to rue a five-minute spell either side of the half-hour mark when they won three penalties in the opposition half but came away with no points, Leinster were able to control things through an impressive ability to maintain possession for long spells.
In response, Ulster missed an alarming 30 tackles - 22 of them in the first half - but did at least make last season's double winners work through the phases for their scores.
"I want to put a positive spin on that, but that's what I expect every week," said McFarland afterwards.
"We did that against Connacht too but we do that every week. We'll fight for every inch, we'll play to the end and be strong. We have a battling spirit but that is only going to take us so far and there's lots to work on."
The defeat marks the third season in a row where Ulster have failed to win any of their away inter-pros and, as has increasingly become the norm, came in a trip where the province managed their resources in a fashion that left them without their frontline stars for a derby.
McFarland gave short shrift to the idea that such selections devalue the league.
"None of (the players selected) would be playing there if we did not feel they were doing well at training," he said.
"We have competitive teams and we play some good rugby in this league. People want to come and watch it. I actually like, and I think a lot of people will like it, that they come out and see young Irish players. It was talked about during the week, it's exciting to see this young blood.
"The guys who played out there will learn a lot from coming down here, it is a difficult place to come.
"They average 42 points at home a match and we found that out. They're at a different stage to where we are.
"They have a really good understanding of what they're doing and when they're firing, playing with tempo, getting quick ball, we just couldn't live with that. That's a credit to them and their organisation."
The results over the weekend - Ulster's loss was compounded by wins for Benetton, Edinburgh and Scarlets - saw McFarland's side fall from second in Conference B to fifth over the course of some six hours. Only two points separate the four sides directly behind Leinster, the difference between hosting a play-off game and not qualifying for next season's Champions Cup. McFarland is all too aware of what's at stake over the season's final eight league games.
"We are competitive so we are in a position," he said, acknowledging how tight things have become.
"There is one team (Leinster) in our conference who is far better than any other team. We are all fighting over second place.
"We are in a good position there but we are going to have to win some games in February and March otherwise we won't be. It will be very easy to drop off the back of that."
Such concerns are put on ice for two weeks, however, with the conclusion of the Champions Cup pools now to the fore.
Ulster's pair of wins over Scarlets last month have put them in with a real shot at a quarter-final berth for the first time since 2014 but they welcome one of the best sides in Europe to Belfast this weekend.
Having warmed up for the game with a home win over Toulon, Racing 92, finalists in two of the past three seasons, know that a win in Kingspan on Saturday (3.15pm kick-off) would see them secure top spot.
A win for the hosts would maintain their own hopes of stealing top spot, while a loss would not be terminal to their chances with a trip to Leicester Tigers still to come and three of the five pool runners-up also making it to the quarter-finals.
When the sides met in Paris during October, the big-spending Top 14 outfit - a side with familiar stars like Simon Zebo, Finn Russell and Leone Nakawara - ran out 44-12 winners and McFarland needs no reminding of their talents.
"We'll do our review (of Leinster) on Monday, take our learnings and once that's done, we'll refocus because we've a massive challenge ahead," he said.
"We play one of the best teams in Europe next week at our place. It will be a great occasion and it will all be determined on how we go.
"They're good, they're really dangerous. The coaches have already done their analysis, we had a lot of players involved in that analysis and we'll relish that challenge."
Given the side that faced Leinster, it would be no surprise to see Ulster make 13 or 14 changes to their starting line-up for this weekend's game.
Already without the influential Iain Henderson, Ulster are hopeful that Jacob Stockdale's hamstring will allow him a first outing since the second Scarlets game last month but Kyle McCall looks set for another spell on the sidelines.