McFarland hails Marshall as 'heartbeat of the team' as Ulster open campaign with derby win

Tom Stewart of Ulster dives to score his side's second try during the United Rugby Championship match between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Picture: John Dickson/Sportsfile
Paul McIntyre

BKT United Rugby Championship: Ulster 36 Connacht 10

In what was a largely scrappy and forgettable affair, Ulster started their new campaign with a five-try demolition job on neighbours Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday night.

On opening night of the new season, one would allow for maybe a lack of fluency and accuracy in the opening exchanges. But the fact that it took 28 minutes to trouble the scoreboard operator was something that nobody expected.

Crooked lineouts, dropped balls, passes going to feet instead of the hand, both sides were guilty of unforced error after unforced error and those in the attendance of 10,858 wondered if they were going to see a score as half-time edged ever closer.

But having said all that, when Luke Marshall crossed the whitewash for the opening score, it came off the back of a most brilliant piece of skill from his centre partner Stuart McCloskey.

Under pressure from two Connacht defenders, McCloskey managed to free his right arm from two would be tacklers, reached round over his opponents and with the deftest of off-loads, put Marshall away for a clear run-in under the posts.

Marshall had threatened beforehand. Twice he broke through the Connacht rear-guard but twice his breaks came to nothing.

After missing a lot of rugby over the last two years, it’s clear that the Ballymena man is eager to make up for lost time, and afterwards head coach Dan McFarland singled out his outside centre for special praise.

“Luke is the heartbeat of the team and he’s so proud to wear the jersey. Every minute you watch him out there you can see it – it’s just oozing out of him, " said a delighted McFarland.

“He always looks exhausted from about 30 minutes into the game, but it doesn’t stop him from going. He’s just going and going.

“He’s physical, he’s a great defender as well.

“He offers something slightly different from Stu (McCloskey). His hard lines, runs at pace, very difficult to defend.

“It’s great we got his experience in there alongside some of the young centres as well."

McFarland was also particularly satisfied with how his team eventually put Connacht to the sword after such a slow start to proceedings.

Eight minutes after Marshall opened the scoring hooker Tom Stewart celebrated his first start with a try in a player of the match display.

It helped Ulster to a 14-3 interval lead with Conor Fitzgerald kicking a Connacht penalty on the stroke of half-time.

“Anytime that we get a win in an interpro we’re happy. A bonus point win is pleasing.

“Connacht are a good team and you don’t need to tell me that they have caused us trouble in the past,” explained McFarland.

“Their breakdown, their physicality off the line and disrupting our attacking game. I was pleased with how our breakdown worked but probably not with accuracy and execution.

“We created quite a lot but we weren’t as accurate as we needed to be.”

But what McFarland did like was how his charges continued to keep Connacht on the back foot.

“Repeatedly in the first 20 minutes we weren’t getting points on the board but we didn’t lose our composure. I was pleased with that.

“We always felt that if we could get down there and get our maul going, we could cause them problems and that was what happened.”

That composure brought second half tries from Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore and Callum Reid with Doak adding two conversions to his two first half efforts with Connacht’s sole response coming from Caolan Blade in the 72nd minute.