McLaughlin admits Ulster in 'dogfight' for European spot
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin said that his team is now confronted with a dogfight in the Magners League following yet another error-strewn defeat to the Blues on Saturday night.
Ulster's third straight defeat leaves them in eighth place, two points ahead the Scarlets but, more importantly, only four points ahead of bottom-placed Connacht, who are battling away on two fronts at present.
With Europe very much now in focus, Ulster's shoot-out against the men from the west in the final game of the campaign at Ravenhill on the second weekend in May could be for more than just pride.
For Ulster to allow the Welsh side to easily pick them off in Cardiff last week was one thing, but to oblige on Saturday night at Ravenhill left McLaughlin furious.
"It was just not good enough," he said. "We played extremely well in the opening quarter, and really took the game to them. Then we gave Casey Lualala an intercept try and everything went pear-shaped from then on in.
"To be honest, our performances are just not good enough at the minute. We presented them with a soft try early on and our heads went down, and then we gave them even softer penalties.
"We have talked about this team developing, but we are caught in a real rut at present and not performing the way we should," he continued. "We sat down after the game and had a good look at ourselves, and we now realise we are in a dogfight at present. Connacht are on a roll and will present plenty of problems for opposition sides.
"We have the Ospreys at home on Tuesday week, and we have to play to our potential, stop shooting ourselves in the foot and improving our discipline dramatically."
McLaughlin also raised the issue of how Ulster's scrum, which he believes is their strongest suit, is being refereed. "I think it is a cop-out by referees at scrum time," he said. "I don't want to be down on referees personally, but because of the amount of resets that are going on, they are content to go for a tit-for-tat free-kick or penalty.
"And I believe that the breakdown is now a lottery as many referees blow for a penalty at a ruck rather than to have another scrum when the ball is probably unplayable."
On Saturday, an upbeat Ulster looked good in the opening minutes. But Niall O'Connor undid this good start when his long pass was picked off by Lualala, who ran in under the posts from 60 metres out.
Ulster did finally match Cardiff's physicality on the restart, O'Connor knocking over a penalty and Stephen Ferris barnstorming his way to a tremendous try in the corner.
That fightback brought Ulster to within six points near the hour mark, but barely a minute passed before Lee Halfpenny was splitting the uprights again and then a big hole allowed replacement Dafydd Hewitt to dance through.
Skipper Chris Henry managed a late Ulster try, but it was not enough to even grab a loser's bonus point. The fight is now on.
Ulster -- S Danielli; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, T Nagusa (A Kyriacou 63); N O'Connor (I Humphreys 63), I Boss (P Marshall 62); D Fitzpatrick (B Young 50), R Best, BJ Botha; E O'Donoghue, R Caldwell (D Tuohy 50); S Ferris (I Whitten 66), D Pollock (R Diack 50), C Henry (capt).
Blues -- C Czeka; L Halfpenny, C Laulala (D Hewitt 66), J Roberts, T James; C Sweeney, R Rees; G Jenkins, T Rhys Thomas (G Williams 40), T Filise (S Andrews 62), D Jones, P Tito (capt) (A Pretorius 54), M Molitika, S Warburton (M Williams 59), X Rush.
Ref -- A Macpherson (SRU).