McFarland takes plenty of positives from Christmas bonus at the RDS
The ghosts of Christmas past threatened to engulf Ulster once more last Friday.
True, their record defeat to Munster had taken place in November 2018 but, after being caned here 40-7 on their last festive visit south, Dan McFarland might have been forgiven for bracing himself for another abject humiliation.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
He might thank his unheralded kids for saving some face. It was a messy affair, like many a Christmas party. Everyone started off with good intentions before going off the rails in spectacular fashion; this was less a competitive contest rather than a glorified interprovincial trial.
Certainly, McFarland’s elder lemons didn’t always cover themselves in glory; Matt Faddes’ 19th-minute yellow card for an illegal tackle effectively lost them the match as Leinster secured the bonus point by the time he returned.
His legal tackling wasn’t the smartest either, and even two-try intercept king Craig Gilroy will reflect on missed tackles, so too Bill Johnston and others.
Leinster led 54-21 with nearly a quarter of the contest to go but slumped drunkenly, heads in pillowed arms, as Ulster’s enthusiastic young guns arrived to snatch the unlikeliest of bonuses with an unanswered three-try salvo.
Jack Regan, son of Offaly All-Ireland winner Dáithí, arrived to great effect; so too Ethan McIlroy, a Schools’ Cup finalist last March but roaming the RDS as if to the manner born.
“It’s terrific for them,” enthused McFarland. “And it’s great we got to get those guys on the pitch and get some experience.
“Jack Regan has worked really hard all year, he played really well in the Celtic Cup and deserved the opportunity to play tonight – him and his family will be proud.
“Stewart Moore we know a lot about from the U-20s and we know what he’s got. He played with his usual fearlessness. I was particularly pleased that Azur Allison came on and had a few great carries. He’s a really dynamic forward.
“When you speak to the guys before the game, that’s what you want to see, you want to see them give it all they’ve got and not worry about making mistakes.
“They’re going to make mistakes, that’s the bottom line, but they can’t play scared and I don’t think they did. Ethan McIlroy comes from a Schools’ Cup final and now he’s marking Rob Kearney. He certainly plays without fear.
“He played in pre-season for us and he was excellent there, scored a try, created a try with some nice offloads.
“He’s a great fella. He’s focused, has great footwork and has some pace about him. He deserved a shot.”
So despite the potential for a shellacking, Ulster prepare for Connacht in relatively good spirits.
“We’ve got to be pleased with six tries at the RDS and scoring 42 points, not many teams do that here. I see progress.
“Admittedly, after the first half we learned that we still have some way to go. When they were on their ‘A’ game and we were down to 14, we really couldn’t handle the pace of the game.
“That was nothing to do with a lack of effort or a bit of bite because we showed that a lot. They scored three tries when we went down to 14 men and deservedly went in at half-time a chunk in the lead.
“It was very difficult for us when they had the ball. What I learned in the second half was different though. Last year here, and in we got knocked over early on, we couldn’t get back in the game or impose our game on the opposition.
“But here we did. We found a way back into the game and we changed the way we were playing. We played some fantastic stuff in that second half.”
Ulster’s primary focus this week was securing the four points against Connacht; the bonus point in Dublin was literally that. Captain Alan O’Connor, one of a clutch of players returning to his old patch, knows which match is most important.
“Hopefully we keep everyone on the pitch this time,” smiles the Dubliner, recalling last season’s first home loss to the westerners since 1960. “We had 13 at one stage last year and a full half basically with a red card.
“It just shows like on Friday, if you lose a man you’re chasing your tails. That’ll be a big focus for us, not giving teams that easy access.”
“But with all the guys coming through and the way we’re training, we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
Sadly, Angus Curtis will not be travelling in that direction for a while after the gruesome injury sustained when tackled by Scott Fardy in the second half.