Ulster head coach Dan McFarland gutted by Connacht defeat

Ulster Rugby head coach Dan McFarland
Ulster Rugby head coach Dan McFarland

Ulster’s season came to a crashing halt on Friday night when the northern province fell to a five-point defeat to interprovincial rivals Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium.

After finishing five places and 18 points ahead of their western neighbours, the home side were big favourites to advance to the semi-finals, but on the night, they played second fiddle to a well drilled Connacht side who were fully deserving of their victory.

Bar a late Ulster flourish, Connacht dominated proceedings and but for some poor execution in the red zone, they would have won this contest with a lot more to spare. Thankfully Jack Carty was having a good night from placed balls and four penalties helped his side to a comfortable 12-3 lead as the clock ticked into the final quarter.

Ulster’s sole response for a lacklustre first hour was a John Cooney penalty in the 21st minute. But they did give the home support something to shout about in the 65th minute when captain Alan O’Connor stormed over for the game’s only try. Cooney’s conversion made it a two-point game, but in the dying minutes Carty kicked another penalty and Connacht held on for a famous win.

Connacht will now head to South Africa to face the Stormers in a semi-final next weekend but for Ulster, it’s the end of their 2022/23 season.

But as head coach Dan McFarland said afterwards, the best team on the night won.

“"We entered the play-offs in a really good position and were very hopeful but in the full knowledge that tonight was going to be a massive challenge, (but) to come out on the wrong side of a really tense affair is gutting. We've got a lot of people downstairs who put in a huge amount of effort and the bottom line is, we were second best and I thought Connacht were excellent,” confessed McFarland.

“There's nobody more disappointed than everybody in the changing rooms who put so much effort in this season to go to this point and then have it finish like that, is well prior to winning, is always going to be disappointing.”

McFarland felt that in a bruising and physical battle, his side came out second best against a very abrasive Connacht, and that was where he felt, the difference between the winning and losing of the game lay. 

"They disrupted us at the breakdown and that was the difference in the game really, their defensive breakdown versus our ability to hold onto the ball.

“Tonight, was down to the fact that we lost the battle of the breakdown. I wouldn't want to weigh the fact that we're no longer in the competition onto anything other than that. Connacht came here and did really well at the breakdown and we weren't able to match them there.”

"I would put it down to that. I reckon if we had matched them at the breakdown, we'd be winning. Simple as that. But that's a pretty big part of the game.

"That's really disappointing but it's Play-Off rugby, they're often very tense, especially the interpro games, and we were on the wrong side of it.”

As Connacht prepare for another day out, Ulster will go into review mode as they aim to pick their season apart.

Ulster do possess one of the best attacking mauls in club rugby, but as Connacht showed that once you put the shackles on that, Ulster’s attacking game is very limited.

If Ulster are to ever make serious progress in the URC, they will require a more creative mind to utilise the attacking talent that they have at their disposal.