Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has said his side would have been willing to tackle their festive slate with a weakened squad but postponements were deemed the only way to curtail the province’s Covid-19 outbreak.
The planned Boxing Day clash against Connacht was nixed on Christmas Eve, while the New Year’s Day hosting of Leinster was postponed last Wednesday.
Ahead of this weekend’s scheduled trip to Munster, McFarland says his squad are in a better place when compared to a week ago but a game can only go ahead once it is deemed that its staging will not contribute to a spreading of the virus.
“Obviously there are situations where you don’t have enough players but that wasn’t the situation,” said McFarland of the back-to-back postponements. “We would have played on both weeks even with weakened teams.
“In my experience so far, it’s when the situation is considered and going ahead with the game is likely to cause more spread, or has the potential to cause more spread (that you have a postponement).If you feel that you have the situation under control, that’s the way it is.”
While the positive cases in the camp have caused plenty of upheaval over the last fortnight — indeed on one morning in the week before Christmas, the squad assembled for training only to be sent home — there is hope that results received this morning from the latest round of testing will allow for smoother preparation for Saturday’s journey to Limerick.
“We would plan to (train as normal) but then we’ve had testing so hopefully we’ll find out those results first thing in the morning,” explained McFarland. “That might dictate what we’re able to do in our training session that day, which is exactly what happened in the previous two weeks.
“You’re always trying to adapt but we’ve been doing that for quite a long time anyway. There were days when you could only do certain things or, take the week of Connacht, we left the ground on the day that a couple of positives came and you’re trying to make sure that you’re creating as little risk as possible.”
As much as the dual postponements could potentially create a fixture logjam down the track, an added drawback of the recent situation has been the loss of valuable time on the training paddock at a key part of the season.
After Munster, Ulster will face Northampton and Clermont on consecutive weekends as McFarland looks to take the side into the Champions Cup knock-outs for a third time in four seasons.
While such disruption is far from ideal, in McFarland’s fourth year in charge and with new signings having been kept to a minimum in recent seasons, Ulster at least already have a greater deal of continuity to fall back upon than most.
“Rugby is an extremely complex game,” reflected McFarland. “It has 15 people on the park with a lot of different elements and people doing widely different things and, as a consequence, with all that complexity and moving parts, cohesion becomes a premium. In order to get that, you can simplify as much as you can.
“But, at the level we’re playing at, complete simplicity is not going to win you anything, is it?
“The opposition teams are good enough to spot that, you have to have a certain amount of complexity in there.
“It’s that balance between having clarity and complexity; complex enough that it’s able to break down the opposition, but clear enough that you’re able to execute.
“That’s the skill in the coaching, in producing systems that you can use week in, week out.
“That’s the point when it comes to the breaks, to playing for a few games and then stopping; it’s are you able then when you come back in to go back to the systems you’ve been using so that guys who can click back into it, get back on board?
“The big parts of that system, I’m very used to.
“If you were in a situation where things were evolving all the time and things were changing week in, week out, that would make it very difficult.
“I reckon if this happened in a club putting in place lots of new systems, that would be extremely difficult. I would say if it was all staccato and a new coach, that becomes very difficult.”