Ulster v Zebre: Kingspan clash is must-win tie Gilroy warns colleagues
Craig Gilroy has said Ulster's players must show what representing the province means to them when they take on Zebre at Kingspan Stadium tonight.
Les Kiss' side set lofty targets for the five-game block during the Six Nations but, having ground out results when not at their best in the early part of last month, have veered off course in recent weeks after back-to-back unexpected defeats.
A loss to Scarlets at home was followed up by last Sunday's well below par defeat to Cardiff at the Arms Park and the side have slipped from top to fourth in the table as they look to avoid a first three-game Pro12 losing streak since 2011 against the Italian minnows this evening.
With so much at stake - a home semi-final remains the goal but there is no guarantee of a play-off place or even a spot in next season's Champions Cup - Gilroy has said the mediocre performances simply cannot continue.
Having overcome a gash to his knee sustained against Cardiff to make the start tonight, the team's leading try threat will begin proceedings at full-back with Rory Scholes and Jacob Stockdale on the wings and Stuart Olding reverting to his favoured inside centre position.
"It's a must-win for us," the winger said of tonight's game, when only a full return of five points will do.
"Personally I'm really up for it and I know the other guys will be.
"If we want to get into the play-offs, get a home semi- final, we really need a big finish to this season.
"There are not a lot of games left now and there are big ones coming up.
"The only positive we can take is that we're still fourth and (we're) back at home this week.
"All we can do is get up for it and try and to right a few wrongs.
"It starts on Friday night and we need to show what it means to us."
It was Gilroy's try six minutes after half-time last weekend that seemed to put the side on course for a much-needed victory but the visitors would not score again and the missed tackles evident against Scarlets reared their head once again in what ultimately proved to be a match-losing final quarter.
With Cardiff scoring two tries in the last ten minutes, Ulster were left without even a losing bonus point against a side who have spent the season camped in the Pro12's lower reaches.
The late collapse left Gilroy searching for answers.
"We were really disappointed after the game obviously," said the man who is third in the league's try-scoring charts this season.
"We had a good training week. We flew over, had our team run, came together well, and we were feeling really good coming into the game.
"I thought we actually played quite well up until the 60th minute. We had been leading for quite some time so it's really frustrating.
"It goes back to our defence. Missed tackles again and we let them back in.
"The kick chase was something we talked about, we wanted to get that really nailed on and we didn't.
"That really cost us. We let them in easily, slipped off tackles."
Seven points ahead of Glasgow Warriors who currently sit one place outside of Champions Cup qualification, but with last season's winners having two games in hand, Gilroy hopes that the failure to pick up even a consolation bonus point last weekend does not come back to haunt Ulster in what is a tightly packed top half of the league.
"It just adds to the disappointment," he said.
"We could have won the game, but once that went we had to at least get a losing bonus point.
"We're going to be pretty hard on ourselves.
"Every point matters and we have to come back stronger against Zebre."