Ulster must thrive under pressure, warns Les Kiss
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has warned his players to ignore the swirl of criticism surrounding the squad if they are to keep their Champions Cup hopes alive against Exeter Chiefs on Sunday (5.30pm kick-off).
The province have lost seven of their last 11 games in all competitions, falling to sixth in the league and rendering both of their remaining European pool games as must-wins if there is to be any hope of a quarter-final place come April.
And while the recent run has attracted negative attention from varying quarters - most notably former Ulster hero Stephen Ferris following the loss to Leinster on New Year's Eve - Kiss says his squad can't be "precious" about what is said about them outside of Kingspan Stadium.
"You're always going to have opinion around the edges," he said. "Whether it's informed or not, you can't sit here and be precious.
"You've got to be able to stand in front of the criticism in its varying forms, or the feedback, and deal with it.
"We constantly put ourselves under pressure, maybe inappropriately at times in our own dressing room, our own meeting rooms, our own dressing sheds and own paddock, but you still have to do it.
"You have to put yourself under pressure and there will be external pressure as well.
"The group do feel the internal pressure more than anything and that's because expectation is high and we know the expectation from the outside, particularly what our great supporter base expect from us, so it's not lost on us.
"We know we're not far away. The last two games if you look at the stats sheets we're ahead in most categories.
"We miss the least tackles, we make the most breaks, we clean most of the line breaks but we're not closing the deal out and we have to become better in terms of doing that.
"So a lot of our processes are good, we just need to be finishing it off better."
With a win on Sunday ensuring, at the very least, the province live to fight another day at Europe's top table, Kiss has called on the players to put pressure on the opposing sides with a more favourable route to one of three best runners-up spots for the quarter-finals.
"We want the win, we believe we can win and we can put this competition on a big stage here next weekend against Bordeaux," he said.
"There's a lot of teams that aren't home and hosed yet and we have to put pressure on them by doing our job.
"We've got to stay in the hunt. We only do that if we win this weekend."
And while Sunday's opponents have only the most tenuous hopes of their own quarter-final spot, Kiss expects the Chiefs to be a vastly different outfit to the one beaten by a late Paddy Jackson drop-goal in the first fixture back in October.
Rob Baxter's men are up to third in the Aviva Premiership and had won seven of their last eight in all competitions before last Saturday's draw with 14-man Saracens.
"I think early in the year, by their own reckoning, they weren't where they wanted to be," said Kiss.
"Rob has been with them five years now and you can see how well they rebound from those situations. Slowly but surely they're back in the picture.
"Their areas of strength, traditionally, weren't as strong early in the year. The returns they get off their maul now, in terms of scoring tries and earning penalties, is certainly back to where it was and they've got some personnel back too.
"They have the luxury of that, having some pretty big players who are doing good things for them.
"All those things, aligned with what Rob has put together over the last five years, they've rebounded nicely.
"They're going to be a really tough task."
A task made all the tougher by current injuries, and while Kiss doesn't expect any of those lost to the treatment room in the last two weeks to recover in time, there is at least some help on the horizon.
"The news is getting better, in some departments," the Australian revealed.
"As we know we lost four last week and none of those players will be back.
"Craig Gilroy has a clean bill of health now, Alan O'Connor has been cleared but we just have to get one more step so he may be available, we're not sure yet.
"Robbie Diack is definitely into full training now and available, so we're starting to get a few numbers back around the edges."
That means that once again Ulster will have the bare minimum of senior front-rowers available thanks to the injuries carried by Kyle McCall, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Ricky Lutton and Rodney Ah You.
In their absence Ross Kane and Jonny Simpson have carried the load at tight-head in recent weeks, the latter making his debut in Dublin two weeks ago.
"In terms of guys stepping up, in the heat of that front-row, Jonny Simpson has done a good job. Ross, coming back from injury, has done really well," said Kiss. "It's two little success stories for us this year from local Ulster guys. You throw a challenge at them and they keep standing up to them."
Ulster will need much more of the same come Sunday.