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Ulster coach McFarland aims to improve memories of trips to Leicester's Welford Road

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Given the esteemed position held by the Leicester Tigers in both English and European rugby over the past decades, there are not many visitors to Welford Road with fond memories.

And while Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has tasted defeat there in the colours of both Richmond and Stade Francais, he at least does have some positives to draw upon from past trips to the ground where Ulster's European fate will be decided on Saturday afternoon (3.15pm kick-off).

"My first live game of rugby was Welford Road watching the Baa-Baas play," he recalls of the once traditional fixture between the famous invitational side and the Tigers.

"Watching Rory Underwood and the likes, it was a real experience. Playing there is something as a player you would genuinely treasure."

In his own playing days, taking on the Tigers meant facing one of the club game's most fearsome packs, quite the test for any front-row forward.

"Back when I was playing for Richmond, beating Leicester was a rarity. We beat them in the quarter-final of the cup one year and that was huge.

"I was actually trying to think and I don't ever remember winning at Welford Road with Richmond.

"I was there with Stade Francais and we lost. I shouldn't say it but we thought it was down to a refereeing decision - I could easily be biased."

When McFarland walks down memory lane, it is easy to see just how the Tigers, one of the most storied clubs in the Champions Cup, and twice winners of the competition have developed such a mystique, even in these somewhat leaner years.

"Playing them, that was tough going. That was a team packed with experienced players, lots of leadership.

"Playing against the likes of Graham Rowntree and Cockers (Richard Cockerill) and Darren Garforth, Martin Johnson, John Wells, it was a serious front five to play against.

"In the trenches there it was tough going but that's where you learn your stuff.

"You harden up or you get walked over the top of. And we were walked over the top of a fair few times, I can tell you."

Fortunately for McFarland, he has a better record against the Midlands outfit in the coaching box.

He was Glasgow's forwards coach when, in January of 2017, the Scottish side travelled south knowing they needed a win to make a first ever European quarter-final.

What followed was one of the more striking results of the past few European seasons, Glasgow winning 43-0 to inflict a record defeat upon the side then reeling from the departure of long-term coach Richard Cockerill.

Ulster native Tommy Seymour was among the six tries that day, while most pleasing to McFarland will have been the penalty try produced by a dominant maul.

"That was one of the best experiences I've been involved in. I didn't expect that that day and we went there knowing we had a good chance of winning if we played really well.

"We were on fire that day. It took a lot. It took a lot of preparation from the coaches and there was a tremendous hunger at that stage because Glasgow had never played in the quarter-final and it was a 'win and in' situation.

"It was certainly a good day, yeah."

Somewhat ironically, whether Ulster could have one of those good days even without winning the game is in the hands of a former Tigers hero.

Cockerill left Welford Road in January of 2017, his coaching CV boasting three Premiership titles as well as a Heineken Cup final defeat to Leinster.

Now in charge of Edinburgh, if his side beat Montpellier this evening (7.45pm kick-off), it would not only book their own place in the quarter-finals but also greatly aid Ulster's cause.

If Montpellier earn less than two points in Murrayfield, then the only way Ulster don't progress to the last eight is if Exeter beat Munster in Thomond Park with a try bonus.

"We've given ourselves the opportunity to finish top of the group and to be at home in the quarter-finals, so I want us to take that opportunity," he said.

"We're going to go out there, gum shields in, sleeves rolled up, and we're going to get in the middle of it and see where we get to.

"All the pressure will be on them - they're the A-listers. They've won one of their last 13 away European games and that was at Glasgow, but they'll have expectations to get out of this group.

"I'm going to back ourselves, however. They've got some great coaches and world-class players, but we're going to do everything we can to win."

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