Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has hit out at the contrived format being used to complete this PRO14 season after Saturday night’s defeat by Leinster effectively ended their domestic season.
Champions Leinster reached the final against Munster on March 27 with two games to spare after recording a 13th bonus-point victory in 14 games with a 38-19 win at Kingspan Stadium.
It gives them an unassailable 11-point lead over Ulster at the top of Conference A and with only one team from each conference advancing, it leaves Ulster facing two dead rubbers over the next fortnight at the end of a campaign when most of the Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides struggled to compete.
“We weren’t good enough to finish top of our conference but when you finish second you have earned the right to play in a play-off game,” claimed McFarland.
“It seems like a damp squib to have just one game to finish the season - especially in a season when a lot of these games were characterised by understrength teams.
“Fans are crying out for play-offs, games that have actual knockout meaning and at the end of 16 games they are going to have one.”
Ulster lost last season’s PRO14 final to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium after Ian Madigan’s late penalty clinched an epic semi-final win over Edinburgh at Murrayfield, and McFarland would have loved to have seen more knockout drama this year.
“For the administrators of the game, the formula they have to work with is so difficult.
“I can’t speak to the complexities of their decision-making processes but what I can say is at the end of a 16-game round robin season, it doesn’t seem.. it’s not even whether it’s fair.. it doesn’t seem right that there is one game to finish it.
“People love play-off games.”
Leinster are seeking their fourth league title in a row and demonstrated their awesome squad depth again outscoring Ulster by five tries to three, the last from replacement hooker and one of their emerging stars Dan Sheehan.
The game itself was littered with cards, most crucially the red for Ulster prop Andrew Warwick after 31 minutes for a high elbow on Ed Byrne, a call which disappointed McFarland.
Both sides were down to 13 players in the first half with Stuart McCloskey picking up a yellow card and Leinster losing Devin Toner and Jimmy O’Brien to early sin-binnings but they recovered from a 12-3 deficit to lead 24-12 at half time with tries from Michael Bent, Josh van der Flier and Ed Byrne.
“There were such fine margins in some of those cards,” said Leinster coach Leo Cullen.
“Ulster are dangerous and when we were down to 14 players we were over-ambitious in some of the rucks but we rode out the storm well and got ourselves back in the game even with 13 men. We showed good patience and when we got close to the line the forwards did their job. Ulster had a decent period of sustained pressure in the second half but the guys fronted up well. The guys have great fight for each other. We have a lot of guys away at the moment and some of the academy players have played their part in recent weeks and the mood is good. We will try to keep it going until we get everyone back together again.”
Leinster scored 28 consecutive points either side of the interval with Rhys Ruddock wrapping up the bonus point with the fourth try after 57 minutes, though he ended the game in the bin meaning Leinster finished the game with 14 players.
It hardly mattered because Ulster were totally deflated by then. A sensational break and memorable finish by flying wing Robert Baloucoune – whose stunning performance was undoubtedly the high point of their night – was harshly disallowed for crossing and their race was run. The game’s early tries by Baloucoune and Marcell Coetzee, who limped off with injury in the first half, were a distant memory for Ulster by the time Nick Timoney finally punched a hole in Leinster’s defence for their third try in the final quarter.