Dan McFarland: Shifting focus to Champions Cup gives Ulster a lift after recent losses

Ulster  Head coach Dan McFarland
Ulster Head coach Dan McFarland

If you believe all you read in some media quarters, Ulster have no chance of winning the European Cup this season let alone getting out of their pool.

It was something Ulster head coach, Dan McFarland, was not aware of in the early build-up to the start of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup this weekend.

Few pundits were giving Ulster much hope, but it was not something McFarland was concerned about as he prepares his side for an opening group game against Leicester Tigers on Saturday.

Racing 92 and Scarlets make up the remainder of the pool.

“To be honest I was not aware of that (opinion), said McFarland.

“But we are going into this competition with our eyes on the same prize as everyone else has.

“The main thing is that we focus on what we are doing and what we are trying to do in terms of getting better. That is a week to week progress.

“There is a little bit of a lift (this week) in there because it is the Champions Cup.

“It is a change, it is a great competition. It produces pitches against opponents from different competitions that adds a little bit of spice to the season.

“There is no doubt in our pool people will look at us and given the form rightly expect us not to do well in the competition, it is up to us to show they are wrong.”

And that is something Ulster do have a habit of doing, particularly in Europe.

Leicester will hold no features for Ulster in Belfast, in the eight meetings between the sides, Ulster have a 5-3 head-to-head advantage, and when they have beaten them it is usually with style and a convincing margin.

However, they have failed to get out of the pool stages since 2013-14, when the then Mark Anscombe coached Province topped their group with six wins from six which included home and away victories over Leicester.

The Tigers have bad experiences of Kingspan Stadium/Ravenhill down the years in Europe, but McFarland says it all counts for nothing.

“This is a new day,” he said, adding: “It is two new teams, different coaches, different players, history counts for nothing.

“They will be coming here confident. They bring a strong forward pack and bring some extremely exciting backs and if you do not shackle them you will be in trouble in both aspects, simple as that.

“They did not start the season well albeit they were scoring points, but they have shored up that in the last two games.

“They are beginning to find a little bit of form.

“We are expecting a really good challenge here,” he added.

Aside from the record loss to Munster (64-7) two weeks ago, Ulster have shown a desire to play 80 minutes winning two games and drawing one with the last play of the game.

However, the slow starts are an area McFarland admits is one they are looking to address.

McFarland said: “We are extremely competitive from minute 20 to minute 80, but we have starts to game where we have been on the back foot, particularly on the Edinburgh game and the last two games.

“How we go about combatting that it is a difficult one. Things can happen in a came that are unexpected and that has been the case in some of the games and we find ourselves on the backfoot.

“Going into the game we have to make sure we have the mechanisms in place to approach the game in a way do not end up in that position at the end of the first quarter.”