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'We can do it': Ulster's trip to Leinster now has season-defining potential and Dan McFarland knows it

 

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Ulster have their sights set on Leinster after the win over Munster.

Ulster have their sights set on Leinster after the win over Munster.

©INPHO/Bryan Keane

On the run: Ulster’s John Cooney goes on a break against Munster

On the run: Ulster’s John Cooney goes on a break against Munster

�INPHO/Bryan Keane

New boy David McCann makes his mark

New boy David McCann makes his mark

�INPHO/Bryan Keane

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Ulster have their sights set on Leinster after the win over Munster.

Almost certainly, it was always going to come down to Leinster.

Sooner or later, now or never, Ulster's obstacle remains the same. Few sides have ever had their silverware hopes so consistently squashed at the hands of one particular opponent as the northern province have by their nearest neighbours over the past decade, last year's PRO14 final adding to an already lengthy list of European and domestic heartaches.

So, while the altered format of this season's PRO14 ensured that only one of last season's finalists would be returning to the show-piece this time around, Ulster will have always known that to claim a first league title since 2006 would involve toppling the boys in blue at some stage or another.

The new structure of the competition creating the need to do so over the last six rounds of the regular season rather than in knock-out rugby will only cause to heighten the anticipation ahead of Friday's first showdown between the pair this season.

Ulster's failure to collect a try-bonus in their 15-10 win over Munster on Saturday evening - coming as it did after two early tries but no further points after the 29th minute - will have left Dan McFarland's men expecting that Leinster would have gone into the showdown having closed the gap in the standings.

Instead, Leo Cullen's men suffered their first league defeat since May of 2019 at the hands of Connacht, dropping their first points of the season to leave things more delicately balanced that at any point before.

The pair of weekend derbies have left Ulster in pole position to make the final on the principle that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, sitting 10 points ahead but having played two games more.

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With both sides, prior to Connacht's historic win at least, barrelling their way through the remainder of the league, so much rests on Friday's game and the yet-to-be-scheduled return fixture in Belfast.

While cautioning that there remains plenty of potential for twists and turns beyond the two head-to-heads between the pair, McFarland will not be playing down the significance of this week's visit to a ground where his side haven't won a senior game since 2013.

"We've played 10 games, we've still got six left to play so there are plenty of opportunities to not be in position for that top spot," he said.

"I think in terms of the entertainment value and the competition, there's an added interest to (the game), for you guys (media), the supporters and certainly for us in our preparation.

"If we could win down there, then we'll put ourselves in a really good position for kicking on.

"If we don't, it's taken out of our hands.

"Are we a better team than Leinster? Are we good enough? We can do it, definitely. The probability of it? You only have to ask the bookies and have a look at what the odds are next week.

"They're normally pretty accurate. They won't predict us to win, that's the bottom line, but are we capable of winning down there? One hundred percent.

"What it means is we have to be absolutely on the money which is better than we were this week but we knew that anyway.

"That's exciting."

Despite McFarland's assertion that his side weren't "absolutely on the money", given those events at the RDS, the victory over Munster was one that looked better two hours later than it did upon the final whistle.

Scoring twice in the first 16 minutes through Matt Faddes and then Ethan McIlroy, there was the expectation that the hosts would kick-on and claim a seventh bonus-point of the season, but their tempo decidedly dropped, especially in the minutes just after half-time, and their failure to score when Munster were down to 14 men appeared to have a deflating effect.

"I just think it's a lack of focus on what's important," reflected McFarland on what was not his side's first third quarter lull of the campaign.

"If you're slightly off sometimes as a coach you can look at something and think 'Why are we doing that? That's mad. That's useless.'

"But you've got to remember that these guys are playing at a very high elite level.

"The difference between getting it right and getting it wrong is very small.

"You have to take into account the opponents that you're playing against. If you're under pressure because of the way the opposition are playing, then you make errors.

"We got reefed twice in the first 20 minutes. There were a couple of passes on the edge that we could have done better, we got run into touch twice, we kicked it into touch once. That's unacceptable, you can't give the ball away like that.

"That's something we need to refocus on and really understand that against teams that are determined and in your face then your precision has to be on. You have to take your opportunities when you get them."

Ahead of the biggest game of the season so far, the league table certainly offers an opportunity that's there for the taking.

Belfast Telegraph


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