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Ulster must have saved best rugby for Europe again to continue progress: McFarland

Front row: (from left) Rory Scannell (Munster), Callum Gibbins (Glasgow), Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Jarrad Butler (Connacht), Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Alberto Sgarbi (Benetton) and Ulster’s Iain Henderson pose with the Heineken Cup in Cardiff yesterday
Front row: (from left) Rory Scannell (Munster), Callum Gibbins (Glasgow), Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Jarrad Butler (Connacht), Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Alberto Sgarbi (Benetton) and Ulster’s Iain Henderson pose with the Heineken Cup in Cardiff yesterday

By Richard Mulligan

Ulster produced their best performances of last season during their Heineken Champions Cup campaign and head coach Dan McFarland insists that must be the standard maintained if they are to meet expectations as they look ahead to a new European odyssey.

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The Irish province won five of their six pool games to go through as a best runner-up before losing agonisingly to then champions Leinster in a close quarter-final at Dublin's Aviva Stadium.

It was McFarland's first season in charge, coming at it did after a major changing of the guard at Kingspan Stadium.

Ulster, for some, had punched above their weight, and setting such a high bar has raised expectations for this year.

Speaking at the 25th anniversary launch in Cardiff's Principality Stadium - the site on which the first final was played in 1996 - McFarland accepted for those looking in from the outside there are high expectations for Ulster's European campaign, which begins on November 16 with a tricky away fixture at Premiership side Bath.

Ulster will face last year's European Challenge Cup winners Clermont Auvergne a week later in Belfast, and English Premiership side Harlequins complete Pool Three, the Irish province playing them in the traditional back-to-back games in December.

"From our point of view, or my point of view, it is a different competition each year," said McFarland.

"You face different sides, and obviously the form those sides are in when you hit them at Champions Cup time has a big influence on things.

"We played well during the Champions Cup last year, our best rugby was left to the Champions Cup, which you would hope, although that is not always the case, we will produce again.

"We want to put a little bit of cohesion together, try to get the best players on the pitch at the time and see how it goes. We have some big challenges ahead."

McFarland admits having a full pre-season to work with has been different compared to when he came into the head coach's role last year, having to wait until almost the start of Europe before he was released from his contract by the Scottish Union.

"It has been good, but I think if you look back to the previous summer, the coaching staff were building towards something and that started that summer," he explained. "We have continued to build that throughout last season and now into this season.

"We have made a few personnel changes and some have come and gone, but we have a good squad there and that is developing nicely I think. Hopefully, and gradually, we will keep on building.

"We have a tough assignment this weekend away to Munster in the PRO14, but to have 19 points from five games already, we have built nicely. Then we go into the Champions Cup and that will bring added excitement for the players."

Meanwhile, captain Iain Henderson believes the fact Ulster players will face a number of recent World Cup finalists when they meet Bath adds further excitement to their opening fixture.

"It is reflective of how strong the Heineken Cup is when are going to come up against a number of players who featured in both teams in the final in Japan," he said. "That is what adds excitement to the European competition, that players get the opportunity to play against players they would not normally do, go to places you would not often get the chance to go and play. That is exciting in itself.

"It is a wonderful opportunity for some of the young players in our squad. They have made the step up to the senior side and they know they may now get the opportunity to play in the European Cup and against World Cup finalists."

Henderson has big boots to fill as he takes over the Ulster captaincy from the now-retired Rory Best, but the Ireland lock does not seem fazed by the prospect.

The 27-year-old has skippered his home province on several occasions, but will now take on the responsibility on a full-time basis.

Henderson has been tasked by McFarland to lead what is an exciting new era for Ulster and he admitted that he is ready to follow Best's lead.

"Essentially what I have learned is from Rory over the last number of years, and it would be stupid to say it would not have some sort of influence on how I would lead or how I have led," Henderson said.

"He has had a massive influence on so many people and he has obviously been influential for me.

"I have got to where I am doing what I do, and I do not want to go and change things, no point fixing something if it is not broken.

"You have top-quality leaders scattered throughout the whole squad; for me just to assume I was going to be captain was stupid and idiotic.

"I was delighted when I got a phone call to come in and chat with Dan. I was incredibly frustrated that I was not able to jump back in with everyone. I was told the day before I was going back to Ireland camp ahead of the World Cup.

"Brilliant, I am going to be captain, and then 'right, out you go and see you in two or three months'. That was frustrating. Part of me wanted to get back in there."

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