Andrew Trimble delivers a brutally honest assessment of Ulster's 'depressing' season
'We try to keep the faith, but there's something missing'
When Andrew Trimble agreed to take over as co-captain of Ulster at the start of the season, this campaign was supposed to signal a fresh start but instead it has descended into a familiar nightmare as the same old failings have come back to haunt them.
Trimble burst onto the scene in 2005 as a 19-year-old, and Ulster were crowned PRO12 champions eight months later. He would have been forgiven for thinking that the good times were here to stay.
Fast-forward 12 years and not a single trophy has been added to the cabinet at the Kingspan. For years now, Ulster have flattered to deceive but this season will hurt more than most.
Another failed European campaign was quickly followed by missing out on a Guinness PRO12 play-off spot as the pressure continues to mount up north.
The coaching shake-up that will see Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel join the set-up should improve matters, but Ulster supporters have heard that far too often down through the years.
Trimble and Les Kiss both fronted up at a Kingspan event in Dublin yesterday and neither shirked the issues at hand. In truth, how could they?
The problems may be glaring but Trimble is at a loss to put his finger on what exactly has gone wrong this time around.
"It's pretty depressing," Trimble sighs as he settles down for a brutally honest assessment of Ulster's shortcomings.
"It's been a bit typical week after week, and every week we've been trying to keep faith. We're saying to keep going 'We can do this, we can break this' but it's hard to have that confidence or momentum when there's nothing there to build from.
"If it happened for one season, two seasons, potentially three, you could say we've been unlucky. But if you're unlucky consistently, it gets to the point where you can't keep saying that.
"Bounces of the ball, referees' decisions, not having everyone available… people get tired of listening to that. People just don't believe that after a few years.
"You can say you're unlucky but when it continues, you've got to look at yourselves. You have to be honest and say 'Something that we're doing is missing'. To be honest, we haven't cracked it."
Something has been missing in Ulster for years and the reality of their plight is that there is now a real danger that a quality group of players will retire without any medals.
"Potentially, that fear factor or desperation might be what we need to kick us on," Trimble agrees. "If we don't achieve something, we won't fulfil our potential, which would be a massive shame for guys that have been here for years.
"There have been a couple of seasons where we've had an outstanding group of players and we haven't achieved or won anything. The squad we have now is good enough to win things.
"It's tough to deal with. In some ways it makes you dig in and pull together to become a closer unit. In other ways, it potentially makes you try too hard to prove people wrong. There's more desperation there and maybe that desperation leads to a lack of composure at times in games.
"Execution levels aren't good enough, maybe our skill level isn't good enough. Our mental resilience at times when we're up against it, maybe that needs to be worked on.
"This team, probably to our detriment, try too hard at times to be as good as we can be. That desperation is an issue as well."
Behind the scenes, the conversations between the coaches and players have been frank and often harsh, but from speaking to Trimble, it is clear that he and his team-mates are shouldering the blame.
Taking on the captaincy along with Rob Herring has been a baptism of fire, and Trimble admits that in the past there has been an over-reliance on the experience of Rory Best, who relinquished the duties in a bid to recapture his best form.
"Last year it was 14 lads looking at Rory asking what we do. Just 14 muppets saying 'Tell us what to do here, you know what's best'," Trimble smiles.
"It's taken a little bit off him and allowed him to be himself a little bit. You're far better having a team full of leaders than having one guy that everybody looks at.
"We're reasonably harsh with each other, reasonably honest. It's hard to get away from it. Every Monday morning someone puts their hand up and says 'Lads, this is what's going on'.
"It ends up being a little more long-winded than someone intended and it's a little bit emotional, a little bit passionate.
"Until you snap out of it, until you get some results, it's a tough place to go on a Monday morning. Looking at a review saying 'we've done this wrong, that wrong'. There's a lot of soul searching.
"Again, I don't know what it is. There's just something that's not quite there. We haven't turned into a bad side just like that. I know we're close to becoming the side that I know we can be."
The noises coming from Ulster have been the same for some time now but come next season, those involved in the club from top to bottom know that the time for excuses has long been and gone.