The bookies may be suggesting this Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 final is already a foregone conclusion, but Ulster coach Dan McFarland is giving his team a puncher’s chance of causing an upset and winning the league for the first time since 2006.
Defending champions Leinster, who are chasing a hat-trick of titles, head into the PRO14 showpiece on the back of a 24-match unbeaten run that stretches all the way back to May 2019 when they were beaten in the Champions Cup final by Saracens.
They bounced back from that loss in Newcastle to win their two PRO14 play-off games last season to lift the title in Glasgow and have since gone through the 2019/20 league and cup with a 100 per cent record in their 22 outings.
Leinster are now heavily fancied to seal the league deal at Aviva Stadium before they welcome Saracens to the same ground the following weekend for a Champions Cup quarter-final.
However, Ulster also have a last-eight European game on the horizon in Toulouse and they hope to be going to France having bridged their 14-year trophy gap. “They look unbeatable, they are unbeatable,” said McFarland about Leinster.
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“Can they be beaten? What else am I going to say? I want to use the phrase we have a puncher’s chance, but what have the bookies got us at? Minus 10 at the moment? That is a two-score deficit in a final. They’re basically saying we have no chance.
“But yeah, they obviously can be beaten. Saracens beat them last year in a final. We have to go out and have a physical intensity that can at least match them. We have to have a game plan that firstly has a way of getting into them, but also that we can execute.
“We are going to need big plays. We’re going to need some of our big players to make big plays, and we are going to need to be precise. If we can get those things right we have a chance and if they don’t get those things right it will obviously help us. I’m not planning for them to make any mistakes,” said McFarland, who is nearing the end of his second season in charge at Ulster.
Amid speculation that Leinster skipper Johnny Sexton might be held in reserve with a view to having his fitness shipshape to face Saracens in Europe, McFarland isn’t hung up about Ulster’s near decade and a half trophy drought, a statistic which exists due to Leinster defeating them in respective 2012 and 2013 European and league finals.
“To say we haven’t won this for this long and we haven’t done this for that long, you can say that about a lot of teams. In our competition, it is most teams because Leinster keep keeping it for themselves. Ulster have been a very good team for a long period. They have been regulars in play-off games. There is only one team that can win the trophy, but we are down to the last two so we have a chance.”
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