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Ulster Rugby are too soft in the middle

They must stop fading after bright starts

By Michael Sadlier

You can't help but wonder after this one - and no, it's not about that missed conversion right at the end with the game there for the taking.

True, Ian Humphreys really should have put the ball between the sticks after Nick Williams had bludgeoned his way over as the clock marched towards turning red, but the fact remains that this was another of those games when Ulster's mid-game slump returned for all to see, except that this time it cost them.

And with Glasgow Warriors winning yesterday Ulster have now dropped to fourth, though they are on equal points with the Warriors and second-placed Ospreys.

They did manage a losing bonus point, but the way Ulster surrendered that 12-0 lead after a tremendous opening will certainly lead to a video session which is likely to be uncomfortable viewing.

Hardly the lasting impression anyone would want heading towards two crucial weekends of European action but Ulster's ability to go off the boil and concede initiative, and rather more vitally, points, just has to be addressed ahead of Saturday's first back-to-back meeting with the Scarlets, who lost 14-8 at Connacht on Saturday.

The concern is that there is something not quite right with the core mentality of this side which is just one way of explaining how it was that the visitors not only surrendered their lead but also how a dominant scrum and good go-forward ball off Stuart McCloskey, never mind Humphreys pulling the strings at 10, all went to pot allowing them to then concede 21 points without reply between the 23rd minute and the 54th.

It was reminiscent of the Ospreys game, though Ulster pulled through to win that one. There is no easy explanation but Ulster's error count along with a spiralling number of penalty concessions - Rory Best afterwards bemoaned some of the decisions but had to accept that Ulster just weren't able to cope - allowed Munster back into the game and presented the home side with a victory they would hardly have expected after the early exchanges.

Defensively, too, Ulster were off the mark at crucial moments which saw Neil Doak's men concede two tries for the first time since the Toulon defeat and, in the league, since the opening day draw at the Scarlets.

No defence, though, can keep sides out forever but, again, the manner in which Robin Copeland and Duncan Williams got over the line at pivotal moments spoke of systems errors and Ulster dangerously drifting in their focus.

All will have to be put right this week while the concern over the lack of a frontline openside flanker will also linger as Sean Reidy soldiers on in the absence of Chris Henry though should Ruan Pienaar and Dan Tuohy return for Saturday, there should be considerable improvements.

The frustration of how things had panned out for Best, and his team-mates, was obvious afterwards though the captain ensured that he did not apportion any blame to Humphreys for his miss.

"I think the way we started the game was good but the big thing for us is that we don't lose our way in the middle of the game.

"We saw bits of it against the Ospreys and the same in this game," Best said.

"We have to be better at weathering that storm as players when it's not going our way. That's when you have to batten down the hatches and not give away silly penalties and be on the backfoot.

"They are the ones we have to cut out.

"We wanted to set our stall out physically and we did that from the start," Best said.

"But the disappointing thing is that we took our foot off the pedal and we knew they'd come back into it and the tide just turned against us.

"We struggled to deal with it and they got a foothold in the game.

"I think at the start of the second half we gave away six penalties in a row and if you're going to do that you're going to make it very, very tough," Best admitted.

"You concede a soft try, you kick-off and the first thing you do is concede a silly penalty. You're not giving yourself a chance to get back into the game when you're doing that," Best said bemoaning his side's costly ill discipline.

There was some useful width and tempo in Ulster's early game and it was good to see Williams clattering about with a bit more oomph - though throwing the ball at Paddy Butler really wasn't clever and helped in the manufacture of Copeland's try - as was the strong finish the team managed to produce again though this was undoubtedly helped by Munster being down to 14 men.

But the good was still outweighed by the bad and, at times, the fairly ugly. A case of must do better - and fast.

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