McFarland refuses to focus on Stockdale slip as Ulster fall short

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Dan McFarland wore a knowing smile as he entered the auditorium for the evening’s main press duties.

He knew where the conversation to come would go.

The question was lobbed in softball manner. No mention of Jacob Stockdale, let alone the incident five minutes into the second-half of this Champions Cup quarter-final when he let slip of the ball a split second before compressing it into the turf.

A try for Ulster at that point would have propelled them seven points clear of Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in this intense provincial derby. And it would have offered John Cooney the opportunity to add another two to their advantage with the conversion to come.

Stockdale had already done all the hard work, going around Adam Byrne before torching Jordan Larmour down Ulster’s left touchline. Dave Kearney was grasping at straws as the big Ireland winger made his way into the in-goal area.

The easy conclusion to make is that his failure to complete that job cost the northern province a famous and unexpected win but McFarland had already faced a bank of microphones and cameras by this point and he wasn’t about to change his tune by now.

“I know what you want me to say and I’m not going to say that,” he explained. “I’ve been asked four times already the question about Jacob and my answer is that not many players in the world would have beaten that many players to get into that position.

“He’s disappointed but that’s not the reason we lost the game.”

Fair play to McFarland. He could have left it there, protected his man behind a collective blanket of responsibility, but he went further by pointing the finger at himself. Ulster’s failures in contact in the first-half were a huge problem, he said, and that was his remit.

The buck stops here and all that.

There was no self-pity. No what ifs, aw shucks or ah wells. Ulster could have won. You could argue that Ulster should have won but the head coach was giving short shrift to the notion that his side had deserved more than this moral victory.

“It’s a question of perspective, isn’t it? Ultimately, the scoreline says otherwise.”

It was an impressive performance from a man who has halted the slide in Ulster’s fortunes and propelled them towards an infinitely more encouraging future in what is still his first season in charge up in Belfast.

“We felt that we could have won it and I’m proud of the lads and the effort they put in against the four-times champions and last year’s double winners. Coming that close and falling short is, as I said, desperately disappointing.”

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