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Ulster coach Dan McFarland explains below par performance in European clash against Bath

Ulster 22 Bath 15


Try that: Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune races through to cross the whitewash

Try that: Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune races through to cross the whitewash

Getty Images

Touch down: Marcell Coetzee scores a try despite the attention of Bath’s Josh Bayliss at the Kingspan

Touch down: Marcell Coetzee scores a try despite the attention of Bath’s Josh Bayliss at the Kingspan


Will Addison also bags a score at the Kingspan

Will Addison also bags a score at the Kingspan

Getty Images

Try that: Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune races through to cross the whitewash

How do you stump Dan McFarland? Ask him what he'll do with some down time.

Ulster's just-completed run of 13 games in 13 weeks has yielded 10 wins and, thanks to Saturday's somewhat laboured victory over Bath, a second successive Champions Cup quarter-final berth.

With this World Cup season finally taking pause for breath, so too can the province's head coach who, with the exception of Christmas Day, has a rare Monday for reflection at the halfway point of what is shaping up to be another season of progression under his stewardship for the previously wayward province.

"Oh jeez, I hadn't even thought of that," he said of this all too infrequent morning off.

"I know I've got meetings on Tuesday all day. I have a professional games board meeting on Tuesday.

"Do you know what? I might go for coffee with (my wife) Danielle on Monday morning. That's what I might do. I might do nothing, but then I won't know what to do with myself."

Sooner rather than later, you sense, he'll be poring over the footage of his side's recent games and preparing for the challenges ahead - now chief among them Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon in the last-eight come the first weekend in April.

It's fair to say his charges were far from their best on Saturday, indeed if not for the hammering by the Cheetahs all the way back in early October one could make the argument that their first half was among the worst 40 minutes they've put out all season.

With what McFarland felt was perhaps an overeagerness to get the job done early, somewhat conversely heightened by Marcell Coetzee's sixth-minute score, the must-win game was hanging in the balance until the very end when Gabriel Hamer-Webb launched a heart-stopping counter-attack from a turned over, and curiously attempted, line-out.

If Bath had snatched a late draw from such a set-piece malfunction, it may have felt a fitting end to a game where, for all Ulster's eye-catching offloading, their efforts were undone as much by line-out and scrum issues as they were the visitors' propensity to put boot to ball from all four corners of Kingspan Stadium.

"I actually don't think it was (the pressure) at all," said McFarland of the nervier moments before a 20th straight game unbeaten at home was secured.

"I reckon we just didn't play very well in the first half, potentially because we overestimated our ability to control the game, which was confirmed when we scored reasonably early. It was very unlike us.

"Early on, we lost a couple of collisions, which was going to be a big focus for us like it is most weeks. This is really unusual for us.

"I think they won the first three scraps where the ball bounced on the floor and that demonstrated to me they were really hungry when they came here, and again that's unusual for us to lose those scraps.

"Then, with their boring us to death with their kicking game and having an injury every 30 seconds, it took the steam out of the game, and the crowd gets frustrated, we get frustrated, which is compounded with us making elementary errors.

"I think we came out with more energy, more fizz (after half-time). The crowd did a fantastic job to be fair in terms of trying to pick us up and drive it on, and there were a couple of occasions there when they really got going.

"We had a better kick-chase in the second half, more aggressive defence, and obviously we had a few opportunities to score in attack. We still had the odd set-piece malfunction which didn't really help but definitely better in the second half."

While there is a Six Nations for plenty of his squad, and a quintet of PRO14 challenges between now and then, the excitement of another crack at knockout European rugby already looms large. Their second trip in succession to the last-eight, McFarland believes his relatively young side are better equipped to make a semi-final than they were this time last year when pushing eventual finalists Leinster all the way in the Aviva before coming up three points shy.

"If we play as well as we can, we're in a better position, definitely," McFarland said. "But if we don't we're not far away from losing comfortably. I think our attack shape and our ability to prise open defences is better now. I think our defence is definitely better now.

"So I think yes, at the top of our game, I think we are (better). But I don't think we can win a quarter-final away from home unless we are at our absolute best. We belong there, we belong in that quarter-final, and I think that's really important. As I say, the real focus for us is around performing at the best level we can, whether it's physically preparing ourselves, mentally preparing ourselves, tactically preparing ourselves, that'll be the focus.

"We'll be going to one of the top four teams in Europe, to their house. If we're at anything less than our best, it'll become very difficult."

Ulster went into yesterday knowing they were to be sixth seeds but with any one of four opponents still possible, Toulouse's win over Gloucester ultimately seeing them claim the third seed. While five of those who featured on Saturday for Ulster were involved in beating the Frenchmen on their own patch under the guidance of Les Kiss in 2015, McFarland has experience of winning at the Stade Ernest Wallon too, doing so as a Connacht assistant in the famous victory of 2013.

"Yeah, I was coaching when we won away," he remembered, before adding with a note of caution: "I was coaching when they came to our place really angry and gave us a spanking as well."

All for another day. This morning, just a coffee.

Belfast Telegraph