Before Christmas, along with many others, I heaped praise on Ulster. Having endured the disillusionment of the previous two or three seasons, results and performances had started to give real hope for the future. The greatest shaft of light was that famous victory over Stade Francais in the Heineken Cup at Ravenhill.
This was a display defined by conviction and ambition — the combination of traditional Ulster graft and young players expressing themselves through quality play and self-discipline.
I pointed out at the time that this match would become the yardstick by which supporters would measure every subsequent Ulster performance. If we employ that comparison, then looking back to Ulster’s defeat to the Cardiff Blues last weekend, the only adjective that could be used to describe Ulster’s performance is shambolic.
The previous match against the Scarlets wasn’t much better, but at least Ulster started brightly and threatened the Scarlets’ tryline from time to time.
Against the Blues it is incredible to think that in 80 minutes, only once did Ulster manage to cross the opposition 22m line, and this came from a Niall O’Connor penalty rather than actually handling the ball. For what it was worth, the subsequent Ulster lineout was lost and Cardiff were never threatened again after this.
If you are happy taking praise when things are going well, then you have to take it on the chin when you seriously underperform, and a harsh dose of reality is needed.
How has it felt as a supporter watching these last two games?
At best, it has been like an endurance test of epic proportions for all the wrong reasons, at worst it has felt like a complete waste of a Friday night sitting down in front of the TV to support your team.
How must it have felt for the travelling support?
The lineout was a shambles. The defensive line was breached too easily and far too often, particularly close to the breakdown, with an unacceptable number of missed tackles.
Self-discipline, or rather the lack of it, seems to be a perennial problem with players not learning from their mistakes.
You can often tell how much a team is up for a game by the intensity of its ‘kick chase’ — that is, the hunger with which players chase and compete for the ball in the air or make a tackle on the catcher.
With the exception of Andrew Trimble, who has an innate dogged aggression to his game, it has been virtually non-existent in Ulster’s last two games.
In short, it is hard to cite any positives from last weekend’s performance. Ironically, if there is one, it is that Xavier Rush, who recently signed for Ulster, was an absolute class act as he has been throughout his time with the Welsh side.
It is hard to believe that Ulster is the same team that just over two months ago registered its first ever away victory in England in the Heineken Cup. Since missing out on qualification for the knockout stages, the intensity and attitude has taken a worrying dip.
There were so many deficient areas that it remains to be seen whether they can all be addressed in the space of one week.
A short sharp solution is to rediscover the edge, intensity and organisation of the defence. By pressurising the opposition into making mistakes of its own, very often this can provide a natural catalyst for improvements in other areas of the game.
This situation presents a big challenge for the Ulster coaching set-up. The public messages that constantly come out of the Ulster camp is that the players are happy, feel that they have a point to prove and that big victories are within their grasp. Reality check — Ulster currently lie in eighth position in the Magners League with 25 points and five wins in 13 games.
Furthermore, the team has been stuffed by the two sides who occupy seventh and ninth positions. The last thing the players should be is happy, because on paper this represents little if any improvement on last season. The season is not over, people still pay money to support, and the players owe it to themselves to take more pride in their individual and collective performance.
The first 10 minutes on Saturday will show whether the team is up for it or not.