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Dan McFarland 'proud' of Ulster squad as captain Ian Henderson lays down knockout challenge to beaten PRO14 finalists



Rob Herring takes the silver medal off after his side's PRO14 final defeat.

Rob Herring takes the silver medal off after his side's PRO14 final defeat.

©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Rob Herring takes the silver medal off after his side's PRO14 final defeat.

Bitter disappointment made way for pride as head coach Dan McFarland reflected on his side's 27-5 defeat to Leinster in the PRO14 final.

The northern province had a dream start with a fantastic try from the impressive James Hume but the three-time champions were not to be denied an unbeaten season in their home away from home at the Aviva Stadium.

A first final in seven years got away from Ulster with Robbie Henshaw's try just after half-time but McFarland came away regretting only that his side couldn't sustain their strong start for longer.

"Initially I'm bitterly disappointed - probably more that I felt that we didn’t play as well as we can do," said the coach after leading the team to one game from silverware in just his second season in charge. "To be fair, we did do a lot of good stuff except everything’s got to be put in the context of the opposition that you’re playing against.

“It is really disappointing but the more I sit here, the more proud I am of the people I work with and the effort they put in. That’s not just the 23 guys who took to the pitch today.

"That’s the seven guys who came down to help out this weekend, the 15 guys who couldn’t attend, the support staff and the enormous hours they put in. It’s not just the effort, it’s the expertise, which is tremendous. We’ve been building that and putting stuff together

“The disappointment comes from the realisation that this evening we’re a fair bit away from where we want to be and the goals that we have but it is what it is."

Skipper Iain Henderson spoke of a realisation too. That the champions will only continue to get better and better.

"Something that’s a bit of a realisation is Leinster are continually getting better. Leinster didn’t peak five years ago and just stayed there, they get better year on year. Every year that we get better, they get better.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re always trying to close that gap and get better at a quicker rate than them.

“They showed tonight and they’ve shown all season that they’re the dominant force in this league.

“We want to continue to play in knock-out games and that’s something that, in this competition, unfortunately we’re going to have to wait for; to get another shot at a quarter-final or semi-final."

Not so in Europe, though, with the page quickly turning to next week's trip to Toulouse and a mouth-watering Champions Cup quarter-final earned all the way back last winter. Having gotten a taste for the big occasion, Henderson wants to see his young team-mates strive for more and ensure the knock-out games keep on coming in the weeks ahead.

"That was something we talked about in the changing room afterwards - we’ve got another shot at another knock-out game," he said.

“The guys love playing in knock-out rugby. Knockout rugby weeks are the most enjoyable weeks you can be involved in.

“I posed the question to the lads – how many more weeks of knock-out rugby do you want to play in? Do you want to play in one, two or three?

“They worked really hard all this week and in the game. I’ve no doubt come Monday morning when we come together, guys will be raring to go looking to give next week a proper go."

Belfast Telegraph