Les Kiss: Ulster know the pressure has cranked up
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has admitted the pressure is on as his side prepare to face Connacht in the Guinness PRO12 tomorrow night (7.35pm).
The province have been describing games as "must-win" for weeks but, after losing three of their last four, their season will be on the line at the Kingspan Stadium this weekend.
Having fallen out of the play-off places after last week's reverse to Glasgow, a loss to Pat Lam's league leaders would leave Ulster looking nervously over their shoulder with only a top-six spot set to guarantee Champions Cup rugby next season.
"The fact is that it gets more desperate with each game and that's not lost on anyone here," said Kiss (right). "It was palpable in last week's lead up and it's palpable this week in preparation and in the build-up.
"The guys are working hard; their industry has been fantastic. They're absolutely aware of how important it is, not just to the team but to the people who are supporting us. It's getting pretty important for sure."
Following the blown lead against Glasgow last week, Kiss says his players are chomping at the bit to get back into action.
"It was a dressing room as down as you could possibly get," he said of the mood after last week's loss. "We felt we didn't get the rewards we possibly should have but we can only point the finger at ourselves.
"Throughout the year there are times as a head coach when you don't even need to step in and say this is what it needs.
"They've already got that solution, that intrinsic pride about what it means to come out here at the Kingspan against Connacht. They're motivated, that's for sure."
Ulster were dealt a further blow this week with the news that both Nick Williams and Alan O'Connor will be sidelined with injuries sustained at Scotstoun but Kiss does expect to have Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne all back for the first time since they joined up with Ireland for the Six Nations.
The Australian does not want to use absentees as an excuse for faltering form, though.
"Everyone knows about our injuries," he said. "We've lost a lot of power in our forwards right throughout the year.
"Jared has probably played three times as many games for Ireland as he has for Ulster.
"We know all these things. What we've tried to do is focus on the players that we've had. They're our solutions.
"To lose Nick and Alan, they're two powerful players for us, and it is a blow but this week we've got Rory back, Trimby is back in the mix and Jared also, his leg is still tender, but he trained very well the last couple of days so there's light at the end of that tunnel.
"We've got six or eight guys with a viral infection. Trimby didn't train on Tuesday because of that but is still in pretty good nick. We've a couple of people to make a decision on, particularly with the bench.
"We've got to have that robustness and resilience as a group. It's too easy to make it an excuse but it is a reality."
As he plots his comeback from the knee injury sustained in Ireland's unsuccessful World Cup campaign, Tommy Bowe will not be ready to take on Connacht but Kiss added that the two-time British and Irish Lion will return sooner rather than later.
"It's getting closer," revealed Ireland's former defence coach.
"The thing with Tommy is, it's an important management process.
"He's doing a lot of good things but he's not quite there yet.
"I can't give you a definite but I wouldn't say he's weeks away. It's day by day and we'll see how he is next week."