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Ulster and rest of Leinster's PRO14 challengers can succeed in Europe: McFarland

By Jonathan Bradley

As reigning European champions, Leinster remain the Guinness PRO14's obvious standard bearer, but Ulster coach Dan McFarland is convinced the rest of the league is more than capable of mixing it with the best that France and England have to offer.

While far from a perfect product, the cross-border competition has produced three Champions Cup quarter-finalists in each of the past two seasons, a marked improvement after zero in the 2015-16 campaign.

At this early stage of this season's competition in games against sides from other leagues, PRO14 teams have won five, lost six and drawn one.

So while Ulster's clash with Scarlets in Llanelli tomorrow night (7.45pm kick-off) may lack the usual novelty, McFarland is sure it will still be full of quality.

"Sometimes you get the feeling that there isn't enough respect given to the PRO14," said the first-year head coach, who has also worked with Connacht and Glasgow.

"I've been involved in the league since its inception and I've watched plenty of European champions come out of this league. I watch a lot of rugby and there's been some really good rugby played in this league.

"That's consistently been the case for as many years as I can remember. It's exciting rugby. The clubs, to a greater and lesser degree of success, have taken that into Europe. That's a massive part of it."

There is no denying the added importance placed on European competition from the wider public, however, as Ulster have found to their cost in recent seasons.

The province have not made the knockouts since 2014, and in a wider timeframe have reached the last eight just five times since the competition's inception in 1995.

With their run to the 2012 final a fine example, a good showing in this competition can mask all manner of inconsistencies domestically.

"When you stand up and have a really good season in Europe, there are kudos that's spread over a particularly wide area," McFarland added. "People stand up and take notice. It makes people proud that more people take notice."

Few would count the northern province among the contenders for the trophy to be handed out in Newcastle come May, while anything but two wins over the next two weeks would leave them with an uphill battle to emerge from a pool where Racing 92 seem certainties to progress.

McFarland believes the key to pushing his side into the conversation in future seasons is a continued attempt to grow depth from within.

Tomorrow, for example, they will certainly be relying on Academy man Eric O'Sullivan, who prior to this season had never played a senior game, and perhaps the likes of Mike Lowry and James Hume too.

"For us at the moment, it's going to be difficult," said McFarland of dining at the very top table. "We are in a process of remoulding the squad and building depth.

"It's fair to say that we're not at the top of the curve so that obviously makes it more difficult.

"But the process of that is an exciting one with the opportunities that arise for young fellas like James Hume, who has come in the last few games and done really well.

"Michael Lowry obviously, Rob Baloucoune, these guys have taken their chances in the PRO14. Over the last few months we've been developing the depth in that squad. We've seen a lot of new faces and a lot of young guys who are beginning to put their hands up and showing what they'll be able to deliver in the future.

"That's very exciting. The heat of the battle in the Champions Cup is another level."

And while Scarlets are under real pressure having lost their first two games of the pool - Wayne Pivac's men were beaten at home to Racing and away at Leicester - McFarland is full of admiration for the 2017 league champions.

"It's impressive, isn't it?" he said of their form in recent seasons.

"They've put together a very talented squad, 19 internationals. They are going to be a threat to anybody.

"Last year they managed to lose a couple of games in the pool, but ended up as semi-finalists. There's a lot of talent there and they play an exciting brand of rugby.

"As is always the case with any side that wants to challenge at the thick end of competitions, they are also full of guys up front that are able to do the business.

"This is a team that doesn't lose at home. They have a very proud record which they will be battling for. It will certainly be tough for us.

"Out of 30-odd games at home over the last while, they have lost at home once, maybe twice and drawn two games. They lost to Racing 92. Racing are a pretty good side, so that's the challenge, and that's excellent, that's what we want. We want challenges.

"Racing are a different team to us. They are a lot bigger than us. They can afford to play in different ways; we have our style of play and I would like us to impose that on Scarlets at the weekend."

While Ulster - who have only two fit locks and two fit looseheads after injuries to Andy Warwick, Alan O'Connor and Ian Nagle - have some degree of momentum after beating Cardiff last time out, Scarlets are looking to reignite their European campaign off the back of a league defeat having been beaten by 14-man Glasgow on Saturday evening.

The result, which saw them end the round level with Ulster on 29 points and second in their conference, was far below the standards demanded by coach Pivac.

"They thoroughly deserved their victory, and if we'd have got there and robbed them at the end that would have been an injustice," he said.

"Glasgow, down to 14 men, won the contact area through great body position and great desire. They threw themselves into it and won a lot of the contacts. They forced turnovers and we weren't that accurate. They punished us.

"Our discipline let us down. It's something that we pride ourselves on and we let ourselves down.

"We've got six days to turn that performance around. At the moment we're very disappointed with our form on the road and very happy with our form at home.

"That has to change if we're going to have any chance of doing well in these competitions."

Meanwhile, Paddy Jackson will not be making a playing return to Irish soil this weekend.

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