Murphy: “Ulster still have a lot to play for”

Interim coach believes Ulster have play-off chance after Scarlets win

Ireland U20 head coach Richie Murphy
Ulster interim Head Coach Richie Murphy believes his side can make the playoffs

BKT United Rugby Championship

Scarlets 20 Ulster 31

STUART McCloskey produced a barnstorming player-of-the-match performance for Ulster as they claimed a bonus-point victory over the Scarlets in Llanelli to boost their hopes of claiming a play-off berth.

Ulster’s win sees them move to sixth in the United Rugby Championship, with only the top eight making the end-of-season knockout.

Tries from McCloskey, Nick Timoney, David McCann and Jacob Stockdale plus 11 points from the boot of John Cooney saw the northern province home against an ill-disciplined Scarlets outfit.

It was a toss-up for the player-of-the-match award with Cormac Izuchukwu pushing McCloskey all the way. The big lock was moved to blindside flanker for the game, and interim boss Richie Murphy’s gamble paid-off with Izuchukwu seemingly unleashed.

A number of barnstorming runs in open play caught the eye and even Ireland coach Andy Farrell may have noticed the damage he can cause in the back-row.

With two challenging games remaining, first against Leinster at the Kingspan Stadium next weekend, then Munster away, Ulster are by no means guaranteed of their top-eight spot.

But, speaking after the game, Murphy believes his side have a fighting chance. They will take confidence from title-holders Munster’s victory last year, when they won all three knock-out games despite being on their travels for each.

“Knock-out rugby is about making sure you’re in there first,” said Murphy.

“That gives you a chance, and you never know what’ll happen when you’re away from home.

“We know we’re definitely going away so it’s a matter of getting in there and giving it a crack.”

Connacht’s chastening defeat to Munster yesterday means Ulster now have a five-point buffer between themselves and those outside of the top-eight, and that means it may be possible to guarantee a play-off spot with a win over Leinster next time out, but Murphy knows there a lot of permutations to play out.

6 April 2024; Cormac Izuchukwu of Ulster during the United Rugby Championship match between Ulster and Benetton at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Cormac Izuchukwu put in a stellar performance at Parc y Scarlets that may well catch the eye of Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell (Ben McShane / SPORTSFILE)

“Everyone is trying to work out what you need and the fact is nobody knows,” the interim boss said.

“I think you’ve got to get what you can get; you’ve got to go into every game trying to win which is what we’re going to do.

“We’ll be home in the Kingspan Stadium next week against Leinster. Obviously, Ulster beat Leinster earlier on in the season.

“There’s a lot to play for. It’ll be a big day.”

Having joined Ulster only two months ago, Murphy will get his first taste of the Interpro rivalry next weekend. However, he is not a complete novice having been on the coaching ticket with the Dublin-based outfit previously and is excited about the prospect of a packed house on a spring evening in Belfast for a huge match- up.

“It’s definitely going to be rocking,” Said the ex-Ireland U20 head coach.

“The Ulster support is very strong.

“I’ve been in the Leinster changing room in Ulster a few times and it’s a difficult place to go for anyone.

“Leinster will come up, they’ll have loads of confidence, but we’ll go into it knowing that a win would put us in a really good place in relation to getting into the last eight.”

After the demise of Dan McFarland at the club, Murphy believes he is beginning to see more and more improvements in player performance at the club.

“I see decent improvements in our training standards,” he added.

“Some of that is coming onto the pitch but it’s coming on sporadically. It’s not there for 80 minutes and it’s not there all the time.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do and at this time of the year, players being banged up and just the cumulative load of the season, it’s actually quite difficult to get consistent training.”