If there are ghosts haunting the Ulster players as they look forward to Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 semi-final against Edinburgh at Murrayfield they will be wearing the colours of the other Scottish team in the competition, Glasgow Warriors.
Ulster has not forgotten the harrowing experience of being thrashed 50-20 by the Warriors in the corresponding match of last season at Scotstoun and listening to their coach Dan McFarland speak, it appears the burning desire to atone for that defeat and wipe it from the memory is a big motivation ahead of the trip to Edinburgh.
Coupled with the need to exorcise the ghosts that have lingered on after that game is the requirement to score the win that will remove any debate about whether the Belfast based team have improved. Prior to the coronavirus intervention, it seemed that they had, but the two defeats suffered to Connacht and then Leinster since their return has altered the outlook slightly.
Ulster were better against Leinster this past Sunday than they were against Connacht, but two losses since Pro14 restarted effectively means they haven’t experienced the satisfaction, and thus the confidence boost, that comes with winning since March.
McFarland is under no illusions that his team has a mountain to climb, particularly as he is quite aware that the Scarlets are the only team in Pro14 history to have scored an away win in a semi-final.
“You could legitimately say that Edinburgh and Leinster have been the standout teams in the competition this year,” said McFarland. “Richard (Cockerill - Edinburgh coach) has built a squad-based on quality international players. I think they have 20 in their squad. You only have to look at the league table as it stands. Leinster are the team to beat but Edinburgh isn’t far behind them.”
Edinburgh is inspired by several players with South African backgrounds, such as loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman, wing Duhan van der Merwe and the halfback duo of Nic Groom and Jaco van der Walt, and was excellent in beating the Warriors in the first Scottish derby nearly two weeks ago.
The most recent clash between the sides though went the way of Warriors, which means that Ulster could have something to cling to. One thing that Edinburgh won’t have that their fellow Scottish team had at Scotstoun last year is a passionate crowd egging them on. But McFarland plays down the potential role that a closed stadium could have on evening up the contest.
“What is it that a crowd gives a team? Maybe it gives the home team a little bit more juice,” says McFarland.
“But I think we also did a disservice last year to the players themselves and their desire to win matches. When it’s a semi-final you don’t really need extra motivation.”
For McFarland, the 2018/2019 semi-final was just one of those games which you’d prefer to forget.
“Last year was disappointing. We were knocked over by the first wave and then never got back on our feet. Well, not until it was too late,” he recalled.
“So there was a disappointment we didn’t play as well as we could have done and that really soured the experience for me. But I know there is a lot of hunger in the squad this year and we want to give it our best shot this weekend. The task in front of us is a difficult one. There’s only ever been two away semi-final wins in the history of the competition, both by Scarlets. I know the difficultly of the task but we want to give it a better shot than last year.”
McFarland believes it is imperative to win if the improvement of his team is to be confirmed.
“Ultimately in sport improvement is measured in wins. That’s the only currency you have; that’s all that you have that is definitive, that you can mark. In terms of results, you are though at the whim of variables,” said McFarland in a press conference that marked the start of his team’s build-up to the semi-final.
“Theoretically, you could make unbelievable progress in a year but it could just so happen that others have made more progress, or two other teams have. You might play remarkably well all year and then you’re hamstrung by injuries at a particular point of the season.”
The variables factor McFarland refers to have come into play in two ways - first up was the Covid-19 intervention that broke the Ulster momentum, and second is the injury problems that have been giving him headaches since rugby’s return to play.
The most notable absentee has been Irish international lock Iain Henderson, and this week they also have three additional international players doubtful because they are struggling with concussions sustained against Leinster. Between them, flanker Jordi Murphy, fullback Jaco Stockdale and centre Stuart McCloskey boast 61 test caps and that experience will be missed if they don’t make it to the Murrayfield game.