Ulster will get into the groove and bounce back, vows Paddy Jackson
Irish ace is convinced beating Bordeaux will provide the perfect springboard struggling Ulster need to get back on track in the PRO12
Exactly what was said in the changing room following Ulster's European loss to Exeter remains between the players and four walls in Sandy Park, but Paddy Jackson has admitted that harsh words were exchanged between the group.
While there is still the most unlikely of scenarios that could see the side make the last eight of the Champions Cup, management have admitted that their challenge is already over with last weekend's reverse ensuring no place in the knockouts for the third consecutive season amidst an alarming run of only four wins in 12 games.
Jackson is among those in the squad still with plenty of experience at the sharp end of Europe's top competition - playing in the final of 2012 against Leinster and two last-eight ties with Saracens during Ulster's four-year run of emerging from their pool - and from his No.10 position is a leader of the team.
As such, he knows the need to drive standards if the squad are to get back to winning ways in tomorrow's otherwise meaningless clash with Bordeaux-Begles (1pm kick-off) and has sensed more of an edge throughout this week's build-up.
"It's tough at the moment, off the back of a few defeats and not qualifying for the quarters," he said.
"We've met as a player group, and management, and we've had a few things to look at, a few harsh words among ourselves and there's been a good reaction.
"It's been building. Three losses in a row and I think it's something we've sat down as a player group and something we've looked at internally.
"We're keeping it to ourselves but I think it's only going to be positive for the rest of the season.
"I think a performance is what we want and obviously the win. I believe if we perform, the win will come.
"To be honest where we want to see the reaction is on the pitch this weekend.
"The way we've trained this week, I think that's what we're going to get."
And while Jackson's time in an Ulster jersey has coincided with results often vastly superior to the current run, he stresses that there is always a weight of expectation when representing the province, not just when things are going poorly.
"There's always pressure among ourselves," he said of grumbling from the outside regarding recent results.
"We don't really listen to much outside the squad to be honest.
"There's nobody more frustrated than us.
"On the pitch, and after the game, you can be sure that there's nobody more annoyed than us.
"There's guys who aren't even involved (in the matchday 23) but want to help, they're pushing for places.
"There's definitely been a step up in training, competitively. On both sides of the ball we're really pushing each other."
When Ulster last experienced a run of such poor form, it came during the winter following the twin departures of coach Mark Anscombe and Director of Rugby David Humphreys.
Similar to this season, the dip started in October with the ensuing run - just five wins in 12 - remarkably similar, including festive losses to Leinster and an early European exit.
Back in those early days of 2015, with their Champions Cup hopes over after a thumping in Toulon, a resounding 26-7 win over Leicester Tigers at Kingspan restored some pride and what followed was just one defeat in the next eight PRO12 games.
Jackson hopes that a similar win from a game with little else at stake tomorrow will be a springboard into a league campaign in need of a boost after Les Kiss' men fell to sixth over the festive period.
"It's big," said the 25-year-old of the return to the PRO12 against Edinburgh next month.
"I think the league is the focus now. It's massive for us as a squad.
"That's why this (Bordeaux) game is so important, so that we can get a bit of momentum and get back on the horse.
"Our sights are firmly set on that top four. The ambition in this club is still there."
The upcoming fixture list will certainly raise hopes of just that, with Ulster set to face only one opponent currently placed above them in the next seven games.
And while a final trio of contests against Munster, Ospreys and Leinster will linger in the mind throughout such a winnable run of games, Jackson admits it's odd to think that he will now likely be absent for the fixtures that will decide his team's fate.
With Ireland's Six Nations panel to be revealed on Sunday, Jackson is one of four Ulstermen who seem certain to be required by Joe Schmidt for the duration of the next two months.
Irish skipper Rory Best, provincial captain Andrew Trimble and Iain Henderson are the others likely to have Ireland on their minds between Sunday and the concluding fixture with England on March 19.
And while in recent seasons Jackson has been returned up the M1 throughout the championship to feature for his province, his increasing importance to the national cause in light of performances against South Africa and Australia last year have rendered such a scenario hugely unlikely this time around.
"It's a bit of a strange one," he noted. "You want to play for your country and hopefully I'll be involved at that level but you want to be here helping your club too.
"We've got a lot of guys due back from injury which is very exciting and, depending on who is away, there's a few that are going to have to step up and really lead."