Bullish McFarland upbeat ahead of Ulster’s ‘dangerous’ Racing test
As Ulster made their way back up the M1 on Saturday night, they would have had one eye on Paris, where a locked and loaded Racing 92 team eventually saw off Toulon.
When Dan McFarland assessed Ulster’s fixtures before the festive period, he will have been mindful that Racing had such a huge Top 14 clash ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup showdown at the Kingspan Stadium.
Given French sides’ tendency to play a full-strength team in domestic competition regardless of whether Europe is on the horizon, perhaps that fixture played into McFarland’s thinking behind sending such an inexperienced side to Dublin.
While there is undoubtedly a lot of exciting talent coming through the Ulster ranks, as soon as the teams were named on Friday, it felt like sending lambs to the slaughter, and so it proved.
It wasn’t quite on the same scale as the hammering that a similarly young side suffered in Thomond Park back in October, but nevertheless, this heavy defeat offered little by way of preparation for what is to come against Racing.
McFarland will welcome back pretty much all of his front-liners, with up to 13 changes expected.
He is hopeful that will include Jacob Stockdale, who has been struggling with a knock, but the head coach did admit that he “would say that even if he was out for nine months”.
Having put together an impressive four-game winning run last month, the northern province have been brought crashing back down to earth with back-to-back inter-pro defeats.
McFarland will be hoping that the reintroduction of his internationals will provide the squad with the lift that they need, because he is fully aware of the scale of the task against a Racing outfit who have been in scintillating form.
“We’ll do our review on Monday, take our learnings and once that’s done, we’ll refocus because we’ve a massive challenge,” McFarland said.
“They’re good, they’re really dangerous. The coaches have already done their analysis; we had a lot of players involved in that analysis and we’ll relish that challenge.”
McFarland defended the team that he picked to play double champions Leinster, and while his rationale was perfectly reasonable, some may argue that his young guns would have benefited from having a couple of more senior players alongside them.
“We have competitive teams, we play some good rugby in this league, people want to come and watch it,” he said.
“A team like Leinster would cause problems in any league. I actually like – and I think a lot of people will like it – to see young Irish players playing. It was talked about during the week, it’s exciting to see this young blood.
“None of them would be playing there if we (coaches) did not feel they were doing well at training.
“The guys who played out there will learn a lot from coming down here. It is a difficult place to come.”
A poor night at the office was compounded by Treviso causing a major upset against Glasgow, while wins for Edinburgh and the Scarlets pushed Ulster down to fifth position of Conference B.
They remain in touch for a play-off spot, however, and will be buoyed by their recent European form as they host last season’s beaten finalists.
“We are competitive, (but) there is one team (Leinster) in our conference who is far better than any other team,” McFarland added.
“We are all fighting over second place. We are in a good position there.
“We are going to have to win some games in February and March otherwise we are not, because it will be very easy to drop off the back of that.
“In Europe we play one of the best teams in Europe next week at our place.
“It will be a great occasion, and everything will be determined next week on how we go.”