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Comment: The truth is, Ulster have never been European big hitters


By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster's latest loss has confirmed one thing that probably already went without saying - they are not one of the best eight in Europe.

While the province fell just two points short of the knock-outs, there is no club in the quarter-finals, nor a few more beside, who would swap their squad for Ulster's and that was the case long before the failure to fire a shot in the season's most high-stakes game.

It should be remembered that this campaign, and indeed the last three before, is nothing out of the ordinary. Ulster are not a side who can claim any divine right to be playing in the business end of Europe year on year.

Indeed, in the various guises of this competition going back to 1995, they have made just five quarter-finals. Take the magical 1999 season away and Ulster have the same sort of European pedigree as sides like the Harlequins outfit they beat home and away this year. One of the heavy hitters? Never so.

But that four of those successful passages through the pools came in consecutive seasons between 2011 and 2014 no doubt has radically altered expectations, and it's Les Kiss and his coaching ticket feeling the brunt of it this week.

Fans are right to expect more improvement than has been witnessed over the past three seasons, and the nature of recent defeats does not bode well.

Out of Europe early and presently the fifth best side in the PRO14, it's been a replica of last year. If that's not enough to prompt use of the dreaded s-word - stagnation - then pondering how many senior players are performing at a higher level than 12 months ago produces a similar effect. Stuart McCloskey, Rob Herring and latterly Callum Black for starters, but not many more outside the Test-level core.

That Sunday's reverse was the fifth this season by more than 14 points, a tally not hit since 2008-09, shows a team headed in the wrong direction, but it was a slide that began before Kiss was seconded from Dublin.

He has had his own success in the past, so too Jono Gibbes, and that the pair have been unable, as yet, to recreate that in Kingspan Stadium likely says more about the organisation than the coaches.

The five years since producing an Irish-capped forward through the Academy speaks for itself, and it's those past failures that are now afflicting the on-field product.

There is hope that these glaring oversights are in the process of being redressed, and yesterday there were nine Academy men in Ireland's Under-20 squad for the Six Nations, several of whom have already made Ulster bows this year.

This increased representation comes on the back of the Ulster 'A' side making back-to-back quarter-finals in the B&I Cup, while the Under-18s won the schools' inter-pro title.

At the top of the pyramid, it seems like another tough season with Leinster and Munster's success making things harder for Ulster fans.

It's all well and good knowing your car needs a little work, but the sight of a Ferrari and BMW parked in adjacent driveways always makes it seem more like you're on the verge of breaking down roadside.

After four consecutive seasons of going nowhere in Europe, Ulster need to find first gear again. Quite who will still be around when they do is another matter.

Belfast Telegraph

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