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Ulster will need to raise the bar at Scotstoun: McFarland

Ulster 21 Connacht 13

Big moment: Ulster players celebrate Marcell Coetzee’s try at the Kingspan
Big moment: Ulster players celebrate Marcell Coetzee’s try at the Kingspan
Nick Timoney’s first-half score had put the hosts ahead
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The conclusion to Ulster's season is turning into head coach Dan McFarland's own personal version of High Fidelity as he revisits his old haunts and faces from the past.

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Having sealed their play-off spot in Murrayfield last month, the quarter-final victory over Connacht on Saturday ensures a trip to Glasgow in the last-four on Friday week.

"They said on TV that it's like visiting old girlfriends," laughed the man who spent 15 years with Connacht as both a player and coach before three in Scotland with Glasgow and then the national side.

"It's not quite like that, but it'll be interesting. Just like the Connacht guys, I get on really well with the coaches in Glasgow.

"The last time we played there we were well beaten, so it'll be tough, there'll be a bit of an edge to it, but I love that, that's just added spice."

His side saw off Connacht 21-13 on Saturday but it was only with three minutes remaining that anyone in Ulster colours could be sure that the Kingspan Stadium farewells for stalwarts Rory Best and Darren Cave would not end on a sour note.

Ulster had been staked to an early 8-0 lead thanks to a John Cooney penalty and Nick Timoney try, but there was only a point in it after the sides traded penalties and Bundee Aki, who was somewhat crassly booed when later subbed thanks to a high tackle, scored off an intercept.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man of the match and Marcell Coetzee provided the exclamation point on his performance as he crashed over in the corner. Billy Burns' conversion put the game beyond Connacht.

McFarland is all too aware that his side will need to be at their very best if they are to get a result next week at a ground where they were well beaten only last month.

"We need to not turn the ball over," he said of where he would seek improvements.

"A little bit like this weekend, we gave the ball away in circumstances where we shouldn't have done. It just heaps pressure on you and when you're playing in play-off games, you're playing against teams who can expose you. We had to go back to our defence on countless occasions against Connacht when we really didn't want to do that.

"Attacking-wise against Connacht, Dwayne (Peel, attack coach) and the players' game plan was excellent.

"We found purchase in the first 15 minutes of the game but then weren't able to do that because our lineout was profligate through various points in the game.

"With Glasgow, the last time we went there I think we turned the ball over eight times in their 22 and were fully punished for that. They will punish you because they have such good players."

It's an almost perfect inverse of when these teams last met in the semi-finals back in 2015. While that game was also in Scotstoun, Ulster were looking to book a place in a "home" final that would take place in Kingspan. The side, who were then coached by Neil Doak, led late on but a dramatic DTH Van der Merwe try and a touchline conversion from Finn Russell saw Glasgow eke out a 16-14 win against the run of play. Gregor Townsend, who would add McFarland to his staff that summer, and his men would go on to claim the title a week later against Munster in Belfast.

With this year's final in Glasgow's Celtic Park, it is Ulster looking to play the spoiler.

"I'd say that's pretty huge, yeah," reflected McFarland when considering the motivation for the Warriors to win silverware in their home city. "That's pretty big, definitely.

"For them, playing at Celtic Park would be massive. I know they were desperately disappointed last year with their performance in the semis (losing at home to Scarlets).

"So, for them, there's an added incentive of demonstrating that they're better than that. This year, compared to last year, they are playing better rugby now... or towards the end of the season, they are playing better rugby. I know, or I'm sure, that Dave (Rennie) and the coaching team are very aware that that was an issue for them last year, but it hasn't been this year."

For now, Ulster will take a few days to try and recuperate as the finishing line of a long season comes into view. Marty Moore, Craig Gilroy, Will Addison and Louis Ludik, four players who would have been considered shoe-ins for the starting line-up when the season began, have already been lost for the remainder of the campaign however long it lasts. Jacob Stockdale, though, who hasn't played since that win over Edinburgh halfway through April, could yet come back from a hamstring issue to take on Glasgow.

"We'll definitely taper off a bit," added McFarland. "You're at a stage of the season where you've done a lot of work, lots of the systems are embedded now.

"It's a question of making sure we're absolutely fresh physically, so the support staff will do a lot of that and we'll train towards the back end of (this) week."

ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Best (capt), R Kane; I Henderson, K Treadwell, N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee.

REPLACEMENTS: R Herring (for Best, 68), T O'Toole (for Kane, 68), A O'Connor (for Treadwell, 72), S Reidy (for Timoney, 79), D Shanahan (for Cooney, 23-33 and 68), D Cave (for Marshall, 50-60)

CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; S Fitzgerald, T Farrell, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, G Thornbury; E McKeon, C Fainga'a, J Butler (capt).

REPLACEMENTS: S Delahunt (for Heffernan, 56), P McCabe (for Buckley, 70), C Carey (for Bealham, 51), E Masterson (for Thornbury, 33), P Boyle (for Fainga'a, 64), C Blade (for Marmion, 51), T Daly (for Aki, 61).

Man of the match: Marcell Coetzee (ULS)

Referee: Andy Brace (IRE)

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