Ulster in need of rebooting
Ulster's frightening slump shows no signs of ending, Friday night's 14-8 defeat by Edinburgh at gnawingly cold Murrayfield having been their third loss in five outings.
Up until December 15 when they went down 10-9 at home to Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup, their form since the start of the 2012-13 campaign had been an impeccable played 13, won 13 competitive matches, this on the back of two pre-season victories – including a first-ever success on French soil – and a draw.
But since losing to Northampton 10 days before Christmas, things have changed markedly, for Ulster's record in the interim is a rather less impressive played 10, won five, lost four, drawn one.
Well do I recall a comment by coach Mark Anscombe when Ulster had just registered their 13th straight victory.
"Save the congratulations for when we've won something," he advised. Now one sees the wisdom of his words in urging caution.
Put bluntly, Ulster are in a mess right now. Remember that they went into the run of four RaboDirect PRO12 games during the Six Nations as clear leaders, with a seemingly unassailable buffer between themselves and rest of the chasing field.
Indeed, as a result of having won their January 4 meeting with then-second Scarlets by an emphatic five-try bonus-bagging 47-17 margin at Ravenhill, Ulster had opened up an 11-point lead.
But bit by bit, that has been dismantled. Ulster have slipped to third having been overhauled by Glasgow Warriors and Leinster who are up to second and first respectively.
While Ulster's post-Christmas graph is alarmingly downward, that pair's 2013 form in the PRO12 has been stunningly good. In the seven-match period during which Anscombe's faltering troops have lost four times and drawn once, Leinster and Glasgow have been storming forward.
Compare the results; since losing 27-19 to Ulster in Belfast on December 21, new leaders Leinster have managed seven straight wins – nine if you include the Heineken Cup brace against Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs. Their septet of PRO12 victories includes four in which they have chalked up a bonus for their try-scoring exploits.
That translates as a total of 32 points from a possible 35.
Glasgow's record in that same run of PRO12 fixtures is played seven, won six, lost one.
That defeat was against Leinster on Saturday night at the RDS where they went down 22-17, thereby picking up a losing bonus.
In each of their five matches prior to that they had banked winning bonuses, giving them 30 points, five short of a maximum return.
Simultaneously Ulster's seven-match schedule has yielded just 15 points: none against Munster, five against both Scarlets and Zebre, two against Treviso and one – each a losing bonus – against Ospreys, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
We cannot keep harping on about absentees during the Six Nations; Leinster lost more players than Ulster when Ireland's call came and Glasgow provided upwards of 20 for the Scottish camp.
Certainly it is true that Ulster have been smitten by an unprecedented run of injuries of unrivalled severity, but that is not the whole picture. There has been a dip in form, too.
An example? Paddy Jackson's goal-kicking horror show in his Ireland debut against Scotland at Murrayfield on February 24 when he landed one out of four was surpassed in Friday night's sequel in the colours of Ulster against Edinburgh, witness one from five.
The following night, Leinster's Ian Madigan stole the show with all 22 of his side's points from a converted try and five penalties.
Ulster's try-scoring has dried up, too: none against Ospreys, one against Glasgow who replied with four, two against Treviso who also bagged four, one against Edinburgh. That's another very worrying trend with the season now at its business end stage.
Ulster go to Leinster in the PRO12 this Saturday night which is hardly an ideal dress-rehearsals for a Heineken Cup quarter-final with Saracens a week later.
Yet while Ulster can ill-afford to go to Twickenham on a one win in five outings streak – and that against bottom club Zebre – the painful truth is that history suggests it may be so.
They have not won in Dublin since August 1999 when they went to Donnybrook as European champions and have never triumphed at the RDS.
To earn a home semi-final in the PRO12 they are required to achieve a top two finish.
Somehow they must get themselves back in the saddle this weekend.
After Leinster they have Dragons and Cardiff in Belfast either side of a trip to Galway where they will meet Connacht in Eric Elwood's last inter-pro in charge of the westerners.
The Heineken Cup? Given the time it takes for re-grouping players to gel afresh, on current form that looks a million miles away.