Friday 28 July 2017

Déjà vu for Ulster as they chase their old rivals' tails

Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

There is no comfort in the familiarity of events at the Kingspan Stadium right now.

Ulster have been here before, watching Leinster and Munster scale European heights and establish a stranglehold on domestic affairs while they scramble for position.

They thought those days were behind them, their 2012 quarter-final win at Thomond Park appeared to nudge them ahead of their southern cousins in the pecking order and while they weren't able to release Leinster's fingers from their throats they were competitive to the last.

Now, they have rediscovered the inconsistency that has so plagued them and the long, trophyless run looks set to continue for a 12th season unless they can somehow mount a spectacular end-of-season charge.

Assured Friday night's draw against Cardiff Blues kept them in touch in the race for the Guinness PRO12 top four.

It's a three-way battle for two spots with Munster and Leinster almost assured of home semi-finals. Ospreys are on 65 points with three games remaining, with Scarlets and Ulster locked on 63 and the west Walians ahead after winning more games.

All three face derbies this week, while Ulster travel to Swansea in two weeks' time and the Scarlets host the Ospreys in the final round. There are twists and turns to come but to keep themselves in the frame Ulster need to win in Limerick on Saturday.

"It's something we've got used to unfortunately and it's something that's frustrating," experienced winger Andrew Trimble said of the scenario.

"We talked about it at the start of the season; if you make life hard for yourself, things can get very tricky (later).

"This team, if we put ourselves under pressure, it can bring the best out of us but it's hard to do that week in, week out.

"Coming towards the end, we're under pressure and we need to produce a big performance.

"There's a lot of character in this team, there's a lot of stuff people haven't seen. We know we can be good on our day but we have to dig deep and be brave.

"We just have to be tough out there and hopefully that produces a big performance because there's no other option."

On paper, Ulster remain strong and although Jared Payne will miss out this weekend they will send a team with plenty of international experience south this weekend.

But despite the names on the team-sheet, the consistency of performance that their provincial rivals can get to has eluded them.

"Off the back of two quarter-final performances that were unbelievably impressive, both Leinster and Munster have been mixing it with the best in Europe and more often than not they come out on top," Trimble said.

"Even just the consistency of performances and the individual performances, they front up week in, week out. It's not very often you say, 'Jeez, Leinster or Munster didn't turn up today', they make a habit of it.

"That's something we need to take and look at ourselves. It's a shame and it's unfortunate that for years we've been comparing ourselves to them and how do we get to be that.

"Opportunities like Saturday are a chance to turn the tables and shift that tide a little bit. We've done it once or twice in the past but never often enough."

For Les Kiss, it has been a frustrating campaign in his first full season and this summer he will change his backroom staff in an attempt to freshen things up behind the scenes.

New faces will arrive into the playing squad too, but Ruan Pienaar's exit will put pressure on a squad that has come to rely on the Springbok scrum-half on their biggest days.

He will get a farewell to the Ravenhill faithful regardless of what happens when the Barbarians come to town in June, but if the influential veteran is to leave Belfast with a medal as reward for his efforts then his team-mates will need to pull out some big performances in the weeks to come.

They can't rely on it, but Munster's minds may well stray at Thomond on Saturday given what's coming in a week's time when they take on Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final at a sold-out Lansdowne Road.

Juggling

Unlike Kiss, Rassie Erasmus is juggling his resources between the two competitions and has a long list of injured personnel going into this week's game, even if Kiss is expecting a surprise or two in the team-sheet.

"I hope they're thinking that's their biggest game of the season, obviously that would be in the mind's eye there somewhere," the Ulster supremo said.

"Sitting there thinking about what you might do, whether you'll manage your resources this way or that; the questions they have to ask of themselves.

"But that's their challenge and what a good place to be... I think they're a team that revel in that.

"I expect that we'll have a fairly tough team to come up against this week. If there's a couple of them who haven't played for a few weeks, I wouldn't be surprised to see them get half a game."

Regardless of whether CJ Stander or Conor Murray make a shock return, Ulster need to perform. Otherwise, they can count 2016/'17 as another lost season.

Irish Independent

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