Speaking ahead of his team’s decisive final fixture against the Cell C Sharks at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on Friday night, McFarland said that the thrilling and tense conclusion to the regular season thoroughly vindicated the new competition.
“It’s been brilliant,” said McFarland in an online press conference on Monday night.
“The challenge that we want in terms of the competitive fixtures, when you look at the table and see the games that teams have won and how close everyone is. It’s been incredibly competitive.”
It is indeed competitive. Going into the final round, six of the eight top teams have a chance of making it into the top four and thus clinching a home quarter-final. Only first-placed Leinster are assured of their finishing position, as they are six points clear of a clutch of teams locked together in second, and even if you look beyond the top eight, to the Welsh Shield battle, there is something on the line in the final round.
The two Welsh teams in contention for the Shield are out of the race for play-off places, as only the top eight teams go through to the Vodacom URC knock-outs. However, the Welsh Shield winner will go into the Champions Cup next season at the expense of whoever loses the big Scottish derby between Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors at Murrayfield on Saturday night.
The Ospreys, who have experienced a late season resurgence, are level on points with the Scarlets, and that is bad news for the two South African teams facing them this weekend as their hosts have plenty to play for. The Ospreys host the Vodacom Bulls, who can still win the South African Shield if the Cell C Sharks and the DHL Stormers lose their last games, on Friday. The DHL Stormers clash with Scarlets at Parc Y Scarlets on Saturday.
The teams from Durban and Cape Town are tied second with Munster, who finish their season with a difficult away trip to Leinster in the last game of the league phase, and all three teams will be desperate to get the wins that will ensure them of a top four finish and possibly the second placed finish that will increase the likelihood of a home semifinal in addition to a home quarterfinal.
Ulster are fifth, but far from out of it, and McFarland is hopeful that his team can sneak into the top four by beating the Cell C Sharks. He sounds like he is relishing the challenge of putting into practice against the KwaZulu-Natalians what his team has learned from their three clashes with South African teams so far.
“The addition of the four South African teams has produced another element and it’s certainly made us have a look at the way that we play, particularly against them, and the kind of things that are needed to take on the South African teams,” said the Ulster coach.
“We’ve both (the Sharks and Ulster) qualified for the quarter-finals, we’ve both qualified for Europe but the prize is a home quarter-final and that is what we’re fighting for. It will have a huge impact for both teams. For us it is about wanting to play at home in front of our fans. It makes it a very important game and one we are hugely looking forward to.”
Looking ahead at the Cell C Sharks challenge, McFarland said it was easy to pinpoint what his opponents would do and where the challenges would come, the hard part will be to apply the lessons of past games to blunt the threats posed. And fronting physically will be a big part of his team’s challenge.
“It’s not complicated really, all of them test you in the set-piece and to varying degrees in different areas,” he said.
“It’s not rocket science but it’s another level to a lot of the teams in the URC. I think all the northern hemisphere teams have experienced that to some degree this year. Their physicality and ball carrying is also right up there.”
It is only really the seventh and eighth placed teams, Glasgow and Edinburgh, who don’t have the carrot in this last round of playing for a top four place.
The best the winner of their game can do is finish sixth, if the Vodacom Bulls lose to the Ospreys, but the men from Pretoria can still manage a third place finish if other results go their way and they in Swansea.
For the Cell C Sharks and the DHL Stormers it is a similar scenario: The best they can do is second, the worst they can do is sixth.
So there’s everything to play for and the strong possibility that points differential, and even the aggregate number of tries, could be turned to determine the final placings and where the quarterfinals will be played.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures:
Friday, 20 May:
19h00: Benetton v Cardiff Rugby (Treviso)
20h35: Ulster v Cell C Sharks (Belfast)
21h35: Ospreys v Vodacom Bulls (Swansea)
Saturday, 21 May:
16h00: Dragons v Emirates Lions (Newport)
18h00: Connacht v Zebre (Galway)
18h10: Scarlets v DHL Stormers (Llanelli)
19h00: Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors (Edinburgh)
20h15: Leinster v Munster (Dublin)