McFarland 'nervous' over media praise as he seeks improved Ulster consistency
Ulster 25 Harlequins 24
There are worse things to be than a work in progress still winning rugby matches.
Ulster's fourth victory in succession proved to be the most nail-biting of all, sealed only by virtue of a 79th-minute John Cooney penalty from the opposing 10-metre line and an athletic reclaiming of the restart by replacement flanker Mattie Rea.
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Their third victory from three in this season's Heineken Champions Cup keeps the side top of Pool 3 and on course for what would be a second consecutive quarter-final spot.
However, the nature of the win had head coach Dan McFarland stressing that his side have no divine right to view themselves as a top-eight team.
Admitting he was somewhat unnerved by the positive media attention garnered of late, McFarland took responsibility for what he seemed to believe was an underestimation of Harlequins' strengths.
"Perhaps over the last couple of weeks there's a lot of nice things said about us in the press and I look at those and it makes me nervous," McFarland said.
"I don't see us as good as that. I see us a team that can grind out wins but is still in the process of being a consistently good team.
"We're not consistent. It's not that I'm complaining, I didn't actually think we would be consistent at this stage. We're on a journey and we've a fair way to go before we're consistently good.
"This is Champions Cup rugby. We're not in a position where we're guaranteed quarter-finals every year. If you sit down and say 'name me the teams that are going to be in the quarter-finals', the clubs roll of your tongue and we're not one of them.
"So, Leinster, you'd put a lot of money on that. For us, you might have a wager, but you're not putting your house on it. That's the bottom line.
"We're capable of being a top-eight team but we have to be on top of our game and perhaps get a little luck along the way to think about quarter-finals consistently. We're definitely not there yet.
"Going into next week we have to reassess where we're at and make sure we do the fundamentals of the game right.
"I thought (Harlequins) came in with real physicality. They put us under pressure. They've got some really good players that caused us trouble. Perhaps we didn't expect that and that's probably on me.
"We've got Harlequins away (on Friday) so if we play like we played (here) over at The Stoop we haven't got a chance. I really believe that.
"We have to be a whole heap better than that to even countenance a win."
Trailing by nine points with 15 minutes remaining, the province had looked in real danger of losing a first European game in Belfast since January of 2017, removing any margin of error moving forward through the pool with consecutive away trips to Harlequins on Friday and Clermont next month on the horizon.
Prior to Cooney's last-minute rescue act, replacement hooker Adam McBurney's maul try had cut the deficit created by Elia Elia's quick-fire brace.
By that stage, the strong contribution from Stuart McCloskey felt a long time before. Ulster's inside centre looked back to his best after a campaign disrupted by injury, scoring one try having previously created a score for Sean Reidy after gathering Billy Burns' cross-kick.
"He's finding his mojo again which is great," added McFarland. "He's had some niggles here and there. I think he had another finger injury there so he had to work through that."
That turned out to be a dislocated finger, requiring a far longer stint of treatment than he initially thought.
"It wasn't overly sore at the time it just took quite a long time to get back in which I wasn't expecting," McCloskey said.
"The physio was asking to get some pain-killers and I had to tell him it wasn't that bad but just to get it back in.
"I've never dislocated a finger - I thought you just had to knock it back in and it's fine but it wasn't budging. There were three of them at one stage having me by the arm trying to get it back in.
"Yeah, it wasn't that pleasant."
Nor was the situation his side found themselves in entering the last quarter.
Had this game slipped through the fingers, there would have been plenty of missed opportunities to cause regret.
McCloskey and his coach will be hoping late dramatics aren't required again in the near future.
ULSTER - J Stockdale; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy (M Faddes 73); B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Herring (A McBurney 60), M Moore (T O'Toole 73); A O'Connor (K Treadwell 58), I Henderson (capt); S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee (M Rea 60).
HARLEQUINS - R Chisholm; T Ismaiel, M Campagnaro (F Saili 45), J Lang, G Ibitoye (V Goneva 60); M Smith, D Care (M Landajo 67); J Marler (N Auterac 78), E Elia (J Musk 78), K Sinckler (S Kerrod 67); S Lewies (D Lamb 78), T Cavubati; S Kunatani (T Lawday 58), C Robshaw (capt), A Dombrandt.
Ref - M Adamson (Sco).