OPINION: Ulster head coach Dan McFarland remaining grounded despite growing European expectations

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland'.
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland'.
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The glass appears to be always half full when it comes to Ulster these days.

Top of their pool and unbeaten in Europe’s Heineken Champions Cup and second in their conference in the Guinness PRO14 Championship, but still lacking consistency and a big 80-minute performance.

The thrilling and heart-stopping 25-24 win over Harlequins at what is now fortress Kingspan Stadium - unbeaten in Belfast in 17 matches stretching over 14 months - was another massive step forward on the journey the Irish Province are currently on.

Europe is the pinnacle where clubs want to achieve and since 1999 Ulster have struggled to perform on the big scene in a consistent way.

The final in 2012 was a massive achievement, particularly given where the game had moved on to from that Dublin success in ‘99. And while Leinster defeated Ulster at Twickenham seven years ago, it was an indication of the heights the Northern Province could reach.

Before Saturday, Ulster were two from two in Europe having squeezed past both Bath (away) and Clermont (home), but going into the first of the back-to-back games against English Premiership side Harlequins, head coach Dan McFarland was playing down the expectations from the outside.

And he was right.

We may have been guilty of thinking it was a straightforward pathway for Ulster to do the double over Quins and the road to the quarter-finals was as good as secured.

Harlequins rocked up to Belfast and, with everything to play for themselves in Europe’s premier competition, almost derailed those expectations..

But the fact Ulster were able to turn around a three minute 14 point swing in the game and turn a nine-point deficit into a one point win with two minutes to go, will have raised the expectations once again.

A week earlier Ulster turned on the style in the first half against Scarlets and secured a bonus point win in the PRO14, that coming in the front 30 minutes.

It was disappointing that they were unable to maintain the intensity for the rest of the game and while the most you can take from a game is five match points, which they did, the glass remained only half full.

At the halfway point in Europe Ulster are looking a good bet to make the quarter-finals unless the wheels were to completely come off.

A win at The Stoop on Friday night against Quins will leave them neck and neck with Clermont in Pool Three, the French side likely to do the double over Bath when they get them in their impressive backyard at Stade de Michelin.

Indeed, when Clermont and Ulster meet at the French venue in the New Year, they may well be locked on the same number of points and that clash will as good as decide who tops the pool.

A win for Ulster in France would be the dream ticket, however, their lack of bonus points (none to date) could come back to bite them. The home quarter-final is the aim, but even winning all six games it could still see them finish as the fifth seed in spite of topping a pool and an away game in the last eight.

Let’s not get carried away perhaps and certainly one man who will not is head coach McFarland, quick to highlight that this Ulster squad is on a journey and have a fair bit to go on it yet.

He admits to seeing nice things appearing in the Press over the past few weeks - wins over Bath and Clermont and progressing well in Europe will do that - but he also admits to it making him feel nervous.

“I do not see us as good as that, I see us as a team that can grind out wins but is in the process of becoming a consistently good team. We are not consistent.

“I am not complaining about that, I actually do not think we should be consistent at this stage, we are on a journey and we have got a fair way to go before we become consistently good.

“Going into next week we will have to reassess where we are at and make sure we do the fundamentals of the game right,” he said.

And as the level of expectations naturally rise in the stands, McFarland is blunt on where he sees things, even after another grind-out win over Quins.

“We have got Harlequins away and then Clermont away (in Europe), If we play like we played here in this game over at The Stoop, we have not got a chance of winning,” he added.

It certainly focuses the mind because McFarland, we have found in his 15 months in the role, rarely gets it wrong.

He wants Ulster to be a top-eight side and although when the draw was made many considered the Irish Province to be a top-eight side (they did make the quarter-finals last year), McFarland has a different view.

“I would not consider us as being a top-eight team, I would consider us as being capable of being a top-eight team, but we have to be on the top of our game and perhaps get a little bit of luck along the way to think about quarter-finals being a consistent thing, we are definitely not there yet!” he insisted.

One thing that is consistent with Ulster is McFarland. Throughout the past 15 months he says it as it is and you can be sure it is the same on the training pitch and in the changing room - perhaps that is why he is getting the results he has in the past few weeks and the season before.

Meanwhile, you have got to admire centre Stuart McCloskey. In the 51st minute the eventual man of the match, known affectionately as the ‘Bangor Bulldozer’ for his powerful ball carrying up the middle, dislocated a finger.

It took three of the medical team as many minutes and a bit more to finally get it back in and he was able to carry on.