United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Cell C Sharks
(Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm, Live on BBC2)
ULSTER boss Dan McFarland says that his side’s must win game against the Cell C Sharks on Friday has a “playoff type feel to it” given the prize of home advantage for the winner in the upcoming United Rugby Championship playoffs.
The province recovered from their recent run of three defeats on the bounce to secure a hard fought 16-10 win over Edinburgh in their last game at the end of April, a result which secured their place in the play offs.
They are currently sitting in fifth place and require a victory against their South African opposition in their final regular season game to secure home advantage for the play off quarter finals.
Looking ahead to Friday’s game, McFarland recognised the significance of the fixture.
“It’s a very important game for both teams and one we are looking forward to,” he said.
“Both us and the Sharks have qualified for Europe and for the quarter-finals of the playoffs, but the prize for the winner on Friday is a home quarter-final and that has a huge impact.
“As for us, we want to be playing in front of our fans in the playoffs. Stadiums don’t win you anything, but you’d much rather be playing at home than travelling.”
The game at the Kingspan Stadium will be Ulster’s first competitive fixture in three weeks, but McFarland concedes that a stop-start fixture list is inevitable at this stage of the season, and that they have been used the extra time afford them to prepare for the fixture wisely.
“Look it is what it is, would we prefer to be playing week in week out? Yes. Is it unusual not to be? Not so much,” he reflected.
“Quite often over the years if you’ve been knocked out of European competitions you generally have a few free weekends in there, so it isn’t something that is unusual for us.
“We have been isolating part of our game to work on which we think will be important coming into the final stretch.
“We don’t try to retain a level of intensity over the break because the guys have played a lot of rugby so there is a rest period during that time and then a focus on skill work with the gradual raising of physical intensity, so we are primed and ready to go on Friday.”
McFarland believes that Ulster’s ability to perform when everything seemed to be going against them in their last fixture against Edinburgh will stand them in good stead against the Sharks and in the upcoming playoff games.
“We didn’t play our best rugby, but we beat Edinburgh away from home, a team who haven’t lost at home all season,” he noted.
“It was a titanic struggle which required us to dig as deep and, in that game, there was a sense of belief in what we are capable of.
“The foundation of what we do is built on that every inch attitude and in those last 10 minutes against Edinburgh we showed that.
“I thought they played well, particularly in that second half and kept us under considerable pressure, we needed everything we had to stop them from winning.
“It could have gone either way, but we were good enough defensively to produce the goods and we can stand by that and say that is still part of who we are, and we showed it in a very important game.
“We got two yellow cards in that game, lost our skipper after two minutes and then our very influential centre two minutes later, that was backs against the wall stuff.”
Both Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey have been passed fit to start after being passed fit this week and their presence will vital as Ulster face a tough test against a Sharks side who are third in the table.
They are point ahead of Ulster having won their last four games and boast an array of World Cup winning stars.
McFarland is not fazed by the prospect of facing a team stacked full of international talent, or the fact that this is the first time these two sides will play each other.
He feels that Ulster will be well prepared, given their experiences against other South African sides this season.
“I feel like I know the Sharks quite well I’ve watched most of their games,” he added.
“Although we have never played them before it doesn’t feel like something that is brand new.
“The South African teams test you in the set-piece to varying degrees in different areas which is not rocket science, but it adds another level to them compared to a lot of the teams in the URC.
“Their physicality and ball carrying is right up there and it’s tough to deal with. They have lethal back three, so broken field running, and loose kicking can be fatal against several South African teams, particularly the Sharks.”
Having missed out on a playoff berth last season, McFarland is relieved that the club will feature in it this time around although he is under no illusion as to how difficult emerging with silverware will be in the knockout rounds.
“Our long-term goal is to be competing for championships and that means playing in play off games this year,” he stressed.
“The URC is more competitive than ever with the addition of the South African teams but that is where we want to be.”