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People are right to predict Ulster's Champions Cup exit but we can prove them wrong: McFarland

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Rather than dwell on the defeats of recent weeks, Ulster coach Dan McFarland wants his squad to see the challenge that awaits in the Champions Cup as an opportunity.

Back-to-back inter-pro losses will hardly be viewed as ideal preparation for a pool that includes two of last season's semi-finalists in Racing 92 and Scarlets, as well as Saturday's opponents Leicester Tigers.

Utilising a squad depleted by a lengthy injury list and last season's departures, the province had made a strong start to the Guinness PRO14 before their derby woes, and McFarland believes that the fresh challenge of Europe has already provided a lift.

"There is no doubt in our pool that people will look at us and, given the form, rightly expect us not to do well in the competition," the head coach, in his first year in charge, admitted. "It is up to us to show they are wrong.

"We are going into this competition with our eyes on the same prize as everyone else, but the main thing is that we focus on what we are doing and what we are trying to do in terms of getting better. That is a week-to-week progress.

"There is a little bit of a lift in there because it is the Champions Cup. It is a change, it is a great competition.

"It produces matches against opponents from different competitions, and that adds a little bit of spice to the season."

Having arrived just prior to the season starting with a realistic approach to the size of the challenge that awaited, McFarland's attitude has not been altered by the sizeable setbacks of a thumping in Thomond Park and home loss to Connacht.

"It is difficult as we all want to win," he said. "But for me, the journey is the reward. Monday is a good day for me whether we win or lose. Why? Because it's an opportunity to get better. If I didn't feel like that, I wouldn't be doing my job properly. So if you get too high, or too low, you would not be able to do your job on a Monday and that's really important. I have to be able to focus through Saturday and Sunday so that my analysis is correct, my preparation is correct, to give us the best chance of winning the following weekend.

"I'm not saying I'm unemotional, I am an emotional guy, as long as I can understand that and I can't let myself get too high, or too low, because other people rely on me doing my job."

Imperative to Ulster's hopes of starting with a win on Saturday, without which their quarter-final hopes would seem remote after just one week, will be a faster start.

For all their late dramatics, the side have become well used to playing from behind in the PRO14, and were quickly 14-0 down against both Munster and Connacht. Indeed, they have not scored the first try in any game this season.

"It is an interesting one," noted McFarland. "We are extremely competitive from minute 20 to minute 80, but we have had starts to the game where we have been on the back foot.

"How we go about combating that is a difficult one, in that first game against Munster there was a ricochet try and then an individual missed tackle which we would never expect to see, particularly from the player who did it who is a terrific defender.

"Then in the last game it was a case of a try from a situation that I did not think should have been a try. But then we did not help ourselves in the fact our scrum did not perform to the level it needed to. That put us on the back foot for the first 20 minutes.

"Going into the game, we have to make sure we have the mechanisms in place to approach the game in a way that we do not end up in that position at the end of the first quarter."

Statistically, Leicester's scrum has been the best in the Premiership and they lost one on their own put-in for the first time only in the weekend win over Northampton Saints. Ulster, meanwhile, creaked throughout the game against Connacht - even before pressing Angus Curtis into action as an auxiliary flanker - surrendering a penalty try and drawing plenty more blasts of the referee's whistle.

While Marty Moore has returned to training this week and could make his first Ulster appearance on the tighthead side, things are more in flux on the other side of the scrum.

Rodney Ah You's red card for Ulster A in the Celtic Cup may yet draw a ban, while Eric O'Sullivan suffered concussion against Connacht and is undergoing the return to play protocols.

Should both be unavailable, Andy Warwick would be the only recognised loosehead registered for the competition, although under tournament rules the rarely seen Schalk van der Merwe could be added to the panel under exceptional circumstances.

"We've got a couple of young and inexperienced props, so that isn't a quick fix, it never is," said McFarland of the set-piece.

"Those props play because they've earned their place in the team and the squad, they're excellent rugby players.

"They are going to learn as they go along, hard lessons like that are brilliant. When I was playing, I had a few of those, I can tell you.

"You learn fast from them. So there are certain things that we can do in a week to make sure we are better."

Ulster vs Leicester Tigers

Heineken Champions Cup

Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 5.30pm

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