Dan McFarland says it would be dangerous for Ulster to give tomorrow’s PRO14 semi-final against Glasgow the status of a ‘free hit’.
Having exceeded most people’s, and one suspects their own, expectations this season, the temptation is there to relax, take the load off, and play pressure-free rugby at Scotstoun.
“I think that would be a negative because ultimately, I see it as an opportunity to learn from play-off games — and you can’t learn if you see it as a free hit,” claimed Ulster’s head coach.
“You can only learn if you give it your absolute best shot, so that comes in preparation, it comes in process, and it comes in game-planning. If any of those come second best, how do we learn?
“If we win and we’re full-on, we’ll learn something from it. If we lose and we were full-on, we can go away and say ‘we didn’t get that quite right that’s where we need to change, that’s where we need to get better’.
“But anything less than that top level of performance, you can’t learn from it because all you know is we could have tried harder.”
Ulster have been buoyed by the return of Jacob Stockdale and Louis Ludik to training this week. Both are live options to play tomorrow night. Ireland wing Stockdale sustained a hamstring injury last month against Edinburgh, while a knee injury has kept Ludik sidelined since the end of March.
“Louis might come back into it, we’d be hopeful,” said McFarland.
“We’re treating it as an opportunity to play against a quality side and are confident in the work we’ve done this week, but understanding it’s a difficult task.
“It’s what you want to be doing. We could be on our sun loungers now, but we’re playing play-off rugby which is brilliant.”
McFarland has no fears about either player struggling to get to the pitch of a high-octane battle at Scotstoun, for a repeat of the 2015 PRO12 semi-final which Ulster lost narrowly.
The impressive form of Luke Marshall, who has recovered from a serious ACL injury to play a key role in the last four games, is an example of what is required in 2019.
“It’s one of the things that has changed in rugby over the last 10 years,” says McFarland. “There are a lot of times when players get injured and take a period time, but they’re used to coming straight back into the team.
“Obviously the more experience they get, the better they are at that. The days of saying ‘well he’s been out for six weeks and he needs two weeks playing at a lower level before he comes back in’, they’ve gone.”