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Les needs to give Ulster the Kiss of life after sorry campaign

 

By Jonathan Bradley

After years of failing to win the big games, this season Ulster couldn't even qualify to play in them.

Not since 2010 have the province played out a campaign without a single knock-out tie but, having long ago been eliminated from the Champions Cup, Saturday's defeat to Ospreys has consigned them to a season outside the PRO12 play-offs.

In a year that began to dramatically unravel either side of Christmas, such a scenario had been on the cards for some time but, back last summer, this was meant to be the season that ended the long-running trophy drought, not concluded with the regression to an also-ran.

A first full season under Les Kiss, the man Ulster waited over a year for when David Humphreys and Mark Anscombe stepped out the exit door in 2014, and the arrival of two world class talents from the southern hemisphere in the shape of Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee, had fans expecting serious improvement.

Instead they got a step backwards and under-performance on a considerable scale.

While both Munster and Leinster lost their European semi-finals last month, Ulster sitting idle that weekend was indicative that the gap between the serial winners and serial underachievers was growing.

Interesting too were the words from some senior players in regard to their inter-provincial rivals with both Rory Best and Jared Payne stark in their assertions that being able to beat the best should no longer cut it if it can't be done consistently.

But how did it all come to this?

The loss of Coetzee to an injury before he even arrived was no doubt a blow given how crucial his arrival was slated to be.

With Nick Williams having moved on, the burly South African's knee problem meant one of the side's best players from last season wasn't replaced in an area that already needed an upgrade.

While there looked to be real promise in back-row blend when Coetzee returned to fitness in February, his availability was short lived with Ulster now hoping he is ready in time for next season after another knee complaint.

For such a talented group of foreign stars, Piutau, Coetzee and Ruan Pienaar were on the same field for less than 100 minutes. And that's where that total will stay thanks to Pienaar's move to Montpellier in the Top 14.

Quite how the impending loss of their talisman and such an iconic figure impacted the side this season is hard to quantify, but the distraction surrounding the IRFU's decision to end his Ulster stay must have had some effect on their star number nine.

And Pienaar of course will not have been the only departure on the minds of the squad.

The decision to jettison long-term coaches Neil Doak and Allen Clarke, several months after it was revealed Joe Barakat would be cutting short his time in Belfast to return home, gave the impression of a "lame duck" ticket underneath Kiss.

With the staff on borrowed time, did some already start thinking about the change in methods sure to be brought about by Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel this summer?

How Gibbes brings on the pack - his specialty at his previous employers Leinster and Clermont - will be key with Ulster now needing young players like Kyle McCall, Ross Kane and Alan O'Connor to take a step forward.

Peel, meanwhile, will be responsible for a backline that, having been hailed as one of the most threatening in Europe, failed to show much of a deadly streak this season.

Thanks to injuries and inconsistency from most, it is telling that arguably the two men behind the pack who end the season with more credit in the bank than when it started are Jacob Stockdale and Louis Ludik, players who wouldn't have figured in too many first-choice XVs. Whether it was young players with plenty of potential not progressing as quickly as hoped, or veterans not hitting the standards set previously, either here or elsewhere, all too often this season it felt like that much vaunted backline wasn't performing quite as advertised.

And in the end, it all added up to the worst return since 2010.

That year, Brian McLaughlin was still rebuilding the province after the Matt Williams era and the side were very much only at the start of an upward trajectory. Even if that curve didn't yield silverware, there was consistent improvement in results before the stagnation and, this season, decline.

Whether this is a blip or a pattern remains to be seen but there is no escaping the idea that there will be no excuses come next season.

Ever since 2012 fans have felt that this was a squad just one step away from delivering silverware.

Now, there can be no wait until next year. The time must be now with no more talk of learning and moving forward.

The example of Connacht out west provides both hope and a stark dose of reality. Pat Lam took only three years to turn the traditionally weakest province into PRO12 champions.

Next season will also be Kiss's third.

He will start the campaign with a coaching staff that we assume is hand-picked and having now had more than enough time to get his feet under the table.

Even with the departure of Pienaar, the squad is as talented as it is likely to be given that Piutau will clearly not be around forever and senior players such as Rory Best edge closer and closer to the end of their careers.

Already, pleading for a year's patience won't be popular with some of the regulars through the Kingspan turnstiles, but the Ulster brain trust, from top to bottom, must now accept that the next 12 months will define their time in Belfast.

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