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Ulster's favourites tag for Challenge Cup is 'hilarious', says Dan McFarland

Challenge Cup Rugby


Focused minds: Dan McFarland says a change in attitude inspired Ulster’s comeback

Focused minds: Dan McFarland says a change in attitude inspired Ulster’s comeback


Focused minds: Dan McFarland says a change in attitude inspired Ulster’s comeback

Another away game now beckons.

If Ulster are going to get their hands on this silverware then, never mind the 15-year wait, the achievement itself is bound to stand to them going forward.

Needless to say, Dan McFarland is not for talking up Ulster's chances - and why would he?

A maximum of two more games await in the Challenge Cup but still no guarantee of lifting the trophy and potentially ending Ulster's lengthy break without such success.

"It is what it is," said McFarland, keen enough to shut the line of questioning down with minimum fuss.

"These are serious teams (who are left) and the closer they get to the end, the more serious they get."

He added: "The bookies had us as favourites, which is hilarious I think."

Laughter-inducing or not, Ulster have to be contenders and at least they can now draw on having to dig a result out to make progress in this competition.

Indeed, the half-time scene in the away changing room at Franklin's Gardens may yet prove to be a defining one in so many ways regardless of how Ulster fare against Leicester Tigers or, if they overcome that hurdle, what occurs in the Challenge Cup final.

Trailing 22-14 and having failed to even score when the Saints had just 13 players on the field, what was discussed in the sheds brought enough realignment to get Ulster through what remained to win and reach the last four.

And Ulster owned that second 40 minutes when it came to nudging the scoreboard forward. It also seems that mental calmness and strength more than teacup flinging or decisions to change things were what counted.

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"The areas of the game we needed to improve in were more or less attitude ones, not technical ones," McFarland admitted.

"Speed to breakdown and contact is an attitudinal thing, it is not a question of effort, it is a question of attitude and focus.

"The physicality on the gain-line is an attitude thing that we had to deal with as well," added the coach who steered Ulster to last season's Covid-rearranged Guinness PRO14 final.

And just on the subject of PRO14 deciders, there is the case of John Cooney, who was dropped by McFarland from the starting side for last September's defeat to Leinster.

Since that personal low - alongside his repeated snubs from Ireland - Cooney has negotiated the speed-bumps with notable aplomb and, yet again, showed his value to the province with a high quality performance in Northampton.

McFarland isn't one to throw out praise for the sake of it, so his words on his number one scrum-half also provide telling insight.

"John is a phenomenal player," he said.

"He is up and down with his emotions because a lot of guys really want to succeed and play at the top level.

"What you really find out is he just wants to be part of a team that is playing well and he is playing well within it.

"He loves it. He is just crazy for it. That is when you see his best.

"He was disappointed at not getting into the Irish squad and not playing in the PRO14 final (starting team), but since then it has been non-stop really good John Cooney and he is just loving it.

"He was a big part of the win at Northampton."

McFarland had yet more praise to give out, though - this time forwards coach Roddy Grant was the one in the spotlight through his work with Ulster's lineout and impressive driving maul.

"He has been superb," says McFarland.

"Our lineout in the PRO14 was number one on our own ball and on the opposition ball.

"We have also scored most tries from mauls from any team.

"He has a real attention to detail, cares very much and the players he works with really buy into it.

"He is a really good learner and keeps me on my toes."

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