Coach insists there is still a pride to play well
Back at the end of last season, Ulster faced their fair share of dead rubbers, the mix of the shortened league season and the ill-fated Rainbow Cup ensuring a glut of games when the end result would have little lasting impact beyond the 80th minute.
Those low stakes were the product of a mixture of Ulster defeats and a lack of emotional investment in the competition from the off.
When Clermont roll into town on Saturday, however, the relative lack of weight hanging upon the outcome is through the province’s excellent European showings, their most recent victory ensuring they have booked their place in the last 16 with a week to spare.
Althoufh one of seven teams who have already banked safe passage to the knock-out stages before the concluding round of fixtures, when Ulster welcome the French giants to Belfast it will not be a game wholly devoid of stakes.
The two-legged nature of the last-16 negates the importance of home advantage in the next round – though there is perhaps a marginal advantage to playing on your patch in the second leg – but with the top two in each pool rewarded with a home quarter-final there is a carrot dangling down the line.
It’s that distance that puts Ulster in such an unusual position. For an organisation that so frequently stresses the idea that their “next game focus” precludes much acknowledgment of anything further down the track, how much incentive is the location of a game four months down the line that may or may not ever occur?
In the aftermath of his side’s latest triumph, Dan McFarland was focused more on the element of the pride of playing in front of a bumper home crowd rather than getting bogged down in the permutations.
“We’re not looking further than the Clermont game and the reason for that is you have to look where your feet are,” said the head coach. “If you don’t, you’ll trip up.
“We’re going to have a really tough game against Clermont but it’s a game that every single person within our organisation will want to win and it’s a game that every single person who turns up at our ground to support us will want us to win. We have a duty of care around that.
“There won’t be desperation motivation but there is a motivation to play well and beat Clermont on our own soil.”
Those in charge of the finances at Kingspan Stadium may not feel the same. Now guaranteed at least one more home Champions Cup game this season, the prospect of ensuring any prospective last eight tie would occur in Belfast is sure to have some seeing pound signs.
A first home knock-out tie in Europe since the visit from Saracens would surely do its bit for the balance sheet. As of course would a semi-final played at the Aviva Stadium, although home country advantage in the last four is only on offer to the sides who top the pools and it is hard to envisage Racing 92 slipping up at home against Northampton.
As if to emphasise the vagaries of the current Covid-19 impacted pool standings, Ulster’s reward for their second seeding would be a meeting with reigning champions Toulouse.
“We want to keep winning,” McFarland added. “The seeding you never know because you can’t know what’s going to turn up on the other side of the draw. Some teams getting five-pointers from not playing, some teams getting two-pointers from not playing, you really don’t know how the seeding on that other side will end up.
“We just have to focus on what we’re doing and trying to win games.”