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Andrew Trimble: Ulster must prove we can mix it with the very best

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Much to the annoyance of captain Andrew Trimble, there hasn't been much to crow about for Ulster when it comes to local rivalries in recent years.

Both Munster and Leinster have collected domestic and continental trophies since Mark McCall guided the northern province to their last piece of silverware, the Celtic League title in 2006, while even Connacht got in on the act last May when they claimed an historic PRO12 crown in Murrayfield.

With the Indian sign that Leinster have over their near neighbours having been well documented - the Blues have ended Ulster's season in five the last six campaigns - Munster are quickly developing a similar superiority.

It has been almost three years since Ulster last beat the Thomond Park outfit - and that with a shadow side picked with the next week's PRO12 semi-final in mind - while their unforgettable Heineken Cup quarter-final win in Limerick was a full five years ago last weekend.

For Trimble, with his side's play-off hopes hanging delicately in the balance after last weekend's draw with Cardiff, it is high time to redress the growing imbalance.

"We're talking about the level of performance from Leinster and Munster and the only way to change that is for us to deliver on weeks like this," said the Irish international wing.

"Off the back of their two quarter-final performances (in the Champions Cup) that were unbelievably impressive, both Leinster and Munster have been mixing it with the best in Europe and more often than not coming out on top.

"Even just the consistency of performances and the individual performances, they front up week in, week out.

"It's not very often you say, 'jeez, Leinster or Munster didn't turn up today', they just make a habit of it. That's something we need to take and look at ourselves.

"It's a shame and it's unfortunate that for years we've been comparing ourselves to them and how do we get to be that.

"Opportunities like Saturday are a chance to turn the tables and shift that tide a little bit.

"We've done it once or twice in the past but never often enough."

Most notably with their wins earlier in the year over French heavyweights Clermont and an away victory against Champions Cup quarter-finalists Glasgow, this Ulster edition has shown their ability to beat the best but, as Trimble notes, it's a level they have reached all too rarely.

When questioned just why they lack the consistency of their Irish peers, he admits it's a continuing mystery.

"I suppose off the back of a performance that was less than what we can produce (against Cardiff), we can't talk about consistency because we haven't even got to that level," he said.

"I would like you to ask the same question next week after a big performance and then we can talk about consistency.

"We just have to get up to that level first. There's a lot of stuff that has to fall into place.

"This is the last chance and we've got three cup finals between now and the end of the season. We have to show how good we can be because we still believe it.

"A lot of people don't believe it but that's because we haven't proved it, so that's fair enough."

Given Ulster's recent struggles against Rassie Erasmus' men, only 10 players likely to feature for Les Kiss come into Saturday having featured in either of the side's two most recent wins in Limerick - five from the victory in 2014 and a further five from the Heineken Cup quarter-final, with Craig Gilroy the only player to have featured in both.

To win in such an intimidating amphitheatre, Trimble believes he and his team-mates will have to dig deep and produce their very best.

"I think very little needs to be said on weeks like this," he said. "I've been down to Thomond Park I don't know how many times and we've got a small bit of joy once or twice but generally you go down there and encounter a very physical Munster pack and a pretty physical 15.

"It's an intimidating environment and you have to get yourself ready for it.

"Everybody knows what to expect. If you don't match it, you'll be hockeyed out of the gate and there's a reason why that is.

"Munster make changes but they have an environment that just enhances the performance of whoever steps up. They have a lot of strength in depth.

"Whoever it is, is going to produce a big performance and we have to match that. You have to play out of your skin to get a win.

"We all know how big a challenge it is and how tough it is to go down there.

"Just to get that balance of how big a challenge, how much we're asking of ourselves, but on the other side, how much we're capable of. Being daunted, having the right respect for it, but also knowing what we're capable of producing.

"If you've been there in the past when we've won, you know how deep you have to dig.

"We have to produce a big performance to pull it out of the bag."

And of course, even if they should, the job is far from over.

Whether it be in the league or Europe, Ulster have qualified to play some form of knockout rugby every year since 2010, when Brian McLaughlin was in his first year since succeeding Matt Williams and the side failed to win six of their last eight to finish in the lower reaches of the league.

To avoid such a similarly anti-climactic finish this year, Ulster must do more than just win this weekend with Ospreys and Leinster also on the slate before season's end.

Used to putting themselves under undue strain, Trimble acknowledges too many points went begging earlier in the year against inferior opposition.

"It's something we've gotten used to unfortunately and it's something that's frustrating," he added. "We talked about it at the start of the season, if you make life hard for yourself early on, things can get very tricky.

"I think this team, if we put ourselves under pressure, it can bring the best out of us but it's hard to do that week in, week out coming towards the end.

"There's a lot of character in this team, there's a lot of stuff people haven't seen. We know we can be good on our day but we have to be brave.

"We just have to be tough out there and hopefully that produces a big performance because there's no other option."

For Trimble, the alternatives don't bear thinking about.

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