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Jonathan Bradley of Belfast Telegraph (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Ulster face quest for a faultless finish to PRO14 campaign but immediate concern is when will they next play a game?

Jonathan Bradley

Loss to boys in blue could be fatal blow to hopes of making the PRO14 decider


Hanging on: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is stopped by Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne of Leinster at the RDS

Hanging on: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is stopped by Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne of Leinster at the RDS

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Dan McFarland

Dan McFarland

�INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw celebrates scoring their third try

Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw celebrates scoring their third try

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan


Hanging on: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is stopped by Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne of Leinster at the RDS

Going into Friday night's contest with Leinster, in this most uncertain of seasons, the picture for Ulster was relatively straightforward.

Win at their most unhappy of hunting grounds and they would be in the box seat to be the team provided by Conference A for the PRO14 final come March.

Limit Leinster to four match-points, and even grab a losing bonus-point themselves, and they'd at least return up with the M1 with some margin of error.

As it is, the 24-12 defeat at the hands of their most familiar of foes means that anything less than 25 points from their remaining five games - including beating Leinster themselves with four tries and an eight-point margin of victory in Belfast - and Dan McFarland's men will need help from their league rivals in stopping the blue charge to a fourth consecutive title.

Quite apart from the loss of certainty surrounding their place in the conference, Ulster come into this week unsure of when they'll even next take the field.

Europe had been a fairly fruitless pursuit for the northern province this season, following up their back-to-back quarter-final appearances over the past two years with a pair of gut-punch late losses to begin this season's campaign.

While remembering too that there was the consolation of a spot in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals at stake over the next fortnight, the apparent suspension of European competition resulting in the postponement of this week's hosting of Gloucester and the trip to Toulouse eight days later have left Ulster potentially without a game until February 20.

With the French government having advised its clubs not to take part in cross-border matches thanks to the coronavirus variant prevalent in Britain, official confirmation of the halt seems imminent even if EPCR have said they are seeking further talks with the LNR.

Chaos to a calender already struggling to find a solution for the summer's imperilled Lions tour will only be heightened by these latest developments, never mind the impact should the French government's recommendations extend to include the Six Nations due to begin in less than four week's time.

In the short-term, the PRO14 would be able to re-arrange a number of previously postponed games - including Leinster and Munster's Boxing Day clash - in the gap but with Ulster one of only two sides in the competition yet to have a fixture called off at short notice this season, they would be left waiting six weeks for a game unless the league brings forward its final block of conference fixtures.

However long Ulster are on ice, solving their third quarter struggles will be a point of focus for Dan McFarland.

Having managed no points after the turn against Munster a week prior, it was only three against Leinster this time around, turning a 9-5 interval lead into a 24-12 defeat.

With the period directly after half-time producing a pronounced lull - and similar lacklustre third twenties against the likes of Dragons and Edinburgh earlier in the year having gone unpunished - quite what change becomes this side at half-time is an increasing concern.

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"It's interesting as last season our third quarters were excellent," McFarland said. "After half-time we'd be really good, but we have come out and made errors at the start of the second halves and it was extremely costly this time.

"We were obviously receiving the kick-off in the second half so it was pretty critical that we played that territory and pressure game and played it well.

"We played it well and forced Johnny (Sexton) into kicking, Johnny put in a nice grubber, but it wasn't a nice grubber that was going to test us, Mikey (Lowry) went back got the ball and gave a penalty away at the breakdown.

"We just can't do that. You want to get the ball back and put it in the air again which we'd done really well during the game, but we didn't do that.

"So that was a try down and then on the next occasion we had a chance to create some pressure in their half and we spilled the ball.

"And again they flipped the field and got a try off the back of it and that was the game really.

"I thought we did a brilliant job up to a point, but if you want to win down here you've got to be better than that, it's as simple as that."

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