Friday 15 December 2017

A team in desperate need of a new lease of life

Under Les Kiss, Ulster have continued the pattern of shaping to do something serious, then collapsing. Photo: Sportsfile
Under Les Kiss, Ulster have continued the pattern of shaping to do something serious, then collapsing. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The first anniversary of Ulster's whopping 46-26 win over the Ospreys in Swansea is just a week away. That unusual result last season secured an away draw against Leinster in the Guinness Pro12 semifinals. It was Ulster's fourth win on the bounce, a little sequence in which they were averaging a very healthy 35 points a game. Beating Connacht and Leinster in that run augured well for their chances in the knockouts, even if the RDS is always an unforgiving place for them.

Sure enough they were well beaten in that semi, but went away thinking how good they would be with Charles Piutau in their line-up. And indeed the best stepper in the league - and perhaps beyond - has looked at times irresistible.

But Ulster are back to their familiar pattern of shaping to do something serious and then collapsing in a heap. Despite a dodgy lineout yesterday they had enough ball to win at the Liberty but came home a distant second. Leinster in Belfast on Saturday is their last chance saloon. It's becoming a familiar watering hole for this group.

If this has been focusing the minds of the current coaching staff then it's arguable that the incoming crew have not been far behind them. Clearly Jono Gibbes has had his hands full with Clermont, who were back in Lyon yesterday, this time on domestic business. And in Bristol, where one of England's sleeping giants are looking at a scenic season around the Championship clubs before they get can bounce back into the Premiership, Dwayne Peel could be forgiven for watching as much Ulster footage as Bristol.

Gibbes will take over the forward pack from Allen Clarke, and Peel will succeed Neil Doak with the backs. For both men it helps that they have no connection - good, bad or indifferent - with Ulster. So they will be starting fresh. The mood music wafting out of Kingspan has, for a while now, not been in the easy listening category.

Change can't come quickly enough. For Gibbes and Peel it will be an opportunity to start at the start with a group who have no reason not to listen to them. It's unclear whether they have already been in touch about their plans, but the first thing they will need to bring with them is a united front. Then they will need to give head coach Les Kiss a new lease of life.

They will be dealing with a squad that can best be described as flaky. Parts are really good to look at but then bits come away without you even having to scratch the surface. Captain Andrew Trimble says there is no lack of effort and that there have been some painful truths uttered at Monday morning team meetings, but it ain't working.

"We're doing a lot of things well but we're not getting over the line and we're not anywhere near as clinical as we were," he said after final whistle yesterday. "Ospreys taught us a lesson in that today."

Consider the respective positions: both clubs desperate for points to pull up a seat to the top four table. Ospreys had their backs to the wall after drawing blanks, in recent weeks, against Stade Francais, Cardiff Blues and Leinster. Ulster too were under pressure but at least they had a bit of form to sustain them. And still it was horribly inaccurate.

It's hard to get past the sight of Luke Marshall kicking out a ball he needed to keep in when he had an acre of grass in front of him. Or Stuart McCloskey being called ashore seconds after offloading another ball that was barely 50-50.

It summed up their plight that McCloskey's replacement, Stuart Olding, was carted off inside a minute with what looks like a serious ankle injury. At least the next replacement, Jacob Stockdale, had a very positive influence on the game and doesn't lack confidence. But on a team that is happy with where they are, and where they are going, late in the game he wouldn't have thrown the inside pass that needed either to go earlier or not at all. He had beaten four defenders and the try-line was almost in touching distance.

And of Leinster are now coming around the corner. They, like Glasgow, were well under-strength at the RDS on Friday night, but despite the away side putting them under huge pressure on the final straight they got their noses over the line first. It was their 18th win of 21 in this competition, and with Europe off the table they can throw everything at the next few weeks.

It's worth remembering the corresponding fixture with Ulster last season. If next weekend is exactly 12 months since Ulster wiped the Ospreys then this weekend is the same distance between now and their 30-6 win over Leinster. The memory of the day is that Ulster's need was far greater, and it reflected in how they played.

Jared Payne, who Kiss had hoped would be fit for yesterday, was central that day, as was Ruan Pienaar. When the Springbok went off early in the first half yesterday you could feel the ripple of unease it spread through the team. They'd better get used to being without him, for his future in Kingspan is now numbered in days. Whether that stretches to double digits remains to be seen.

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