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Ulster still a way off Europe's elite, says Dan McFarland

Ulster 25 Harlequins 24

Close call: John Cooney sends over the winning kick as Ulster edged past Harlequins at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday
Close call: John Cooney sends over the winning kick as Ulster edged past Harlequins at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday
Stuart McCloskey powers over for a try
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

There are worse things to be than a work in progress still winning rugby matches.

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Ulster's fourth victory in succession proved to be the most nail-biting of all, sealed only by virtue of a 79th minute John Cooney penalty from the opposing 10-metre line and an athletic reclaiming of the restart by replacement flanker Mattie Rea.

Their third victory from three in this season's Heineken Champions Cup keeps the side top of Pool 3 and on course for what would be a second consecutive quarter-final spot.

However, the nature of the win had head coach Dan McFarland stressing that his side have no divine right to already view themselves as a top eight team.

Admitting he was somewhat unnerved by the positive media attention garnered by his side of late, McFarland took responsibility for what he seemed to believe was an underestimation of Harlequins' strengths.

"Perhaps over the last couple of weeks there's a lot of nice things said about us in the press and I look at those and it makes me nervous," he said.

"I don't see us as good as that. I see us a team that can grind out wins but is still in the process of being a consistently good team. We're not consistent. It's not that I'm complaining, I don't actually think we would be consistent at this stage. We're on a journey and we've a fair way to go before we're consistently good.

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"This is Champions Cup rugby. We're not in a position where we're guaranteed quarter-finals every year. If you sit down and say name me the teams that are going to be in the quarter-finals, the clubs roll of your tongue and we're not one of them.

"So, Leinster, you'd put a lot of money on that. For us, you might have a wager, but you're not putting your house on it. That's the bottom line.

"In terms of facing the challenge of playing these teams in the group, these are massive tasks and we've been reminded of that three games in a row.

Sean’s show: Ulster’s Sean Reidy scores a try as Harlequins’ Michele Campagnaro looks on
Sean’s show: Ulster’s Sean Reidy scores a try as Harlequins’ Michele Campagnaro looks on

"We're capable of being a top eight team but we have to be on top of our game and perhaps get a little luck along the way to think about quarter-finals consistently. We're definitely not there yet.

"Going into next week we have to reassess where we're at and make sure we do the fundamentals of the game right.

"I thought (Harlequins) came in with real physicality. They put us under pressure. They've got some really good players that caused us trouble. Perhaps we didn't expect that and that's probably on me.

"We've got Harlequins away (on Friday) so if we play like we played (here) over at The Stoop we haven't got a chance. I really believe that.

"We have to be a whole heap better than that to even countenance a win."

Trailing by nine points with 15 minutes remaining, the province had looked in real danger of losing a first European game in Belfast since January 2017, and removing any margin of error moving forward through the pool with consecutive away trips to Harlequins on Friday and Clermont next month on the horizon.

Prior to Cooney's last-minute rescue act, replacement hooker Adam McBurney's maul try had cut the deficit created by Elia Elia's quick-fire brace.

By that stage, the strong contribution from Stuart McCloskey felt a long time before. Ulster's integral inside centre looked back to his best after a campaign disrupted by various injuries, scoring one try when brushing off the attempted tackle of Harlequins full-back Ross Chisholm, having previously created a score for Sean Reidy after gathering Billy Burns' cross-kick.

"He's finding his mojo again which is great," added McFarland. "He's had some niggles here and there. I think he had another finger injury there so he had to work through that."

That injury he suffered turned out to be a dislocated finger, requiring a far longer stint of treatment than he initially thought.

"It wasn't overly sore at the time it just took quite a long time to get back in which I wasn't expecting," McCloskey said. "The physio was asking to get some pain-killers and I had to tell him it wasn't that bad but just to get it back in.

"I've never dislocated a finger - I thought you just had to knock it back in and it's fine but it wasn't budging at all. There were three of them at one stage having me by the arm trying to get it back in. 

"Yeah, it wasn't that pleasant."

Nor was the situation his side found themselves in entering the last quarter. Had this game slipped through the fingers, there would have been plenty of missed opportunities to cause regret, but McCloskey revealed that the message remained one of preaching patience even nine points down.

"I think we were just saying that we still had time to play territory, there was no need to go chase it with 16 or 17 minutes left," he said.

"We knew if we could get down there we can get something, we just needed two scores.

"We'd coughed up too many silly ones in the first-half. I was culpable for one and I think we all had a go at messing something up.

"We just needed to hold onto the ball and go through the phases. It wasn't our most polished performance by any means, we can be pretty disappointed with out finishing.

"We made it pretty hard for ourselves."

And, of course, for Cooney too who had to step up and nail the high-pressure kick knowing the game was on the line.

"You can never be fully confident but he's been pretty good, hasn't he?" said McCloskey of the man who has provided the winning margin in each of the three European wins so far.

"I'm always wondering what I should do. Should I look at the ball? Should I look at the ground? I decided not to watch him so I'll have to stick to that from now on."

He and his coach will be hoping such late dramatics aren't required again in the near future.

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