Sport Rugby

Saturday 16 December 2017

Ulster still searching for form as they face season-defining period

Time isn’t on Kiss’ side as he looks to put his stamp on the Ulster team
Time isn’t on Kiss’ side as he looks to put his stamp on the Ulster team
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

On the same weekend that Connacht ended their Limerick hoodoo, Ulster continued their own Dublin one as they slipped to seventh in Pro12 table.

For Les Kiss, coming into his new role as director of rugby mid-season and on the back of a disappointing World Cup campaign was always going to be a tall order.

Time isn't exactly on Kiss' side as he looks to put his stamp on the team, and Ulster are not in the kind of situation that allows them to write off another season as some kind of 'transition'.

From the outside looking in, Kiss seems like a good fit for Ulster but one win in his three games, during which they have scored just one try, has piled the pressure on already.


In Europe, a crushing home defeat to Saracens left an all too familiar sinking feeling, and they are playing catch-up as they head into their back-to-back meetings with Toulouse.

The French side are flying high in the Top 14, just two points off top spot but before that, Ulster have the small matter of taking on an Edinburgh outfit who overtook them following last weekend's results.

Friday evening's game is as much about the result as it is about the performance as Ulster desperately seek some sort of consistency before hosting Toulouse a week later.

Toulouse are at home to bottom side Oyonnax (who incidentally are also in the same Champions Cup pool) on Saturday and they may well opt to rest some of their front-liners - an option that Ulster simply do not have.

The fact that Ulster have failed to score a try in their last two outings has to be a major concern for Kiss but he isn't pressing the panic button just yet.

"I would say I am getting closer and closer as each week goes by and just getting a sense of how it all runs," the former Ireland defence coach said.

"It is different for sure. Even how you prep your week has some different hues to it. I am getting my teeth into it and it is quite interesting.

"I wouldn't say it's been softly, softly but you've certainly got to go in and get your fingerprints over things.

"I'm responsible for a lot and I know that two losses in a row, the mindset around that, is something I've got to manage.

"After the Saracens game and the Leinster game, I do think we have put another layer of solid stuff on top of where we need to go."

For all the talk of Leinster's World Cup 'hangover', Ulster have won just two of their five games since Ireland were dumped out of the tournament.

Iain Henderson is only making his way back from injury, while Tommy Bowe faces a further spell on the sidelines.

With Paddy Jackson's limited game-time at the World Cup and the uncertainty over Ian Madigan's future, one would have imagined that the Ulster out-half would be eager to prove a point to Joe Schmidt and indeed Kiss, but he hasn't given his side the kind of leadership and direction that they are craving.

Watching Wasps' Charles Piutau carve up the Leinster backline at the RDS three weeks ago gave Ulster supporters a glimpse of what they can expect next season but they cannot expect the former All Black to single-handedly change their fortunes.

"You do not get anywhere by standing still, we have to challenge ourselves and each other in the group. We understand the challenge against Edinburgh," Kiss said.

"You can perform well against the fourth and below in the Pro12 but when you get above that you just have got to get better and better at facing up to that and coming up with the solutions to it."


And therein lies the problem with Ulster in recent seasons: having promised so much, they fail on the big stage time and time again.

Last Friday's defeat at the RDS means that they have won just twice away to Leinster in 16 years, and their confidence won't be helped by the fact that they have lost their last three games against Scottish opposition.

Former Ulster coach Alan Solomons will attempt to plot their latest downfall, while having made his debut last week, former winger Michael Allen will also look to help Edinburgh boost their own play-off hopes.

In a season when Connacht are threatening to force the winds of change, the next few weeks will decide whether or not Ulster's is over before it even begins.

Irish Independent

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