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No way through: Tommy Bowe is tackled by Ospreys’ Josh Matavesy at the Liberty Stadium

No way through: Tommy Bowe is tackled by Ospreys’ Josh Matavesy at the Liberty Stadium

CameraSport - Ian Cook

No way through: Tommy Bowe is tackled by Ospreys’ Josh Matavesy at the Liberty Stadium

It may be the season of goodwill to all men but there will be little in the way of Christmas cheer at the Kingspan Stadium this morning when Ulster's squad gather to analyse their second deflating defeat in west Wales in as many weeks.

After the loss to the Scarlets that effectively ended their interest in this season's Champions Cup, Ulster were back in the Principality on Saturday and, rather than responding to that setback with a showing that reflected their Pro12 campaign's increasing importance, matters in fact looked considerably worse.

While defeat to the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium is no disgrace in itself - they're a good side who aren't often beaten at home - it was the manner of the loss that will have those in charge knowing that a reverse to Connacht on Boxing Day would have many questioning if this was a team in crisis.

Late tries from Tommy Bowe and substitute Rob Herring put a more positive reflection on the scoreboard but Ulster trailed 31-6 at one point and it has been quite some time since they were so comprehensively outplayed for the first hour of a Pro12 contest.

After issues in the scrum and lineout in recent weeks, Saturday's fundamental malfunction was in defence where an inability to make their tackles cost Ulster dear.

Decision making in the line left a lot to be desired but it will be the falling off of opponents that will cause defensive coach Jonny Bell the most cause for consternation. With the ball, matters weren't much better.

The persistent willingness to kick away possession seemed to be largely at odds with the backline talent at their disposal and there was a stark contrast between the brand of rugby played by the two sides.

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While Ospreys utilised a high tempo style that saw them make 12 offloads in the first half alone, Ulster displayed none of the same attacking verve and were content to boot the ball long without offering much in the way of a chase.

When opportunities did present themselves, the visitors were wasteful.

On two occasions penalties were aimed for touch but both Ian Humphreys and Ruan Pienaar came nowhere close to their intended targets, basic errors made all the more frustrating by the fact that the rolling maul is one area of Ulster's game that is currently clicking.

Taking those chances would have at least made the game competitive but instead Ospreys had wrapped up both the win and the bonus point by the 55th minute.

Ulster's issues in the back-row have been well documented, while the presence of a 2013 British and Irish Lions flanker in the shape of the debuting Dan Lydiate on the bench highlighted the disparity between the options available to the two sides, and Neil Doak's (left) men were once again completely bossed at the breakdown.

If Pat Lam and Connacht were watching, then the westerners will surely fancy their chances of notching a first win over Ulster in Belfast since November 1960 later this week.

The arrival of 100-times capped All Black Mils Muliaina and his compatriot Bundee Aki created a good deal of pre-season optimism at the Sportsground and, despite last Friday's loss to Leinster, it has largely been backed up by a series of impressive performances.

Irish internationals Robbie Henshaw, Rodney Ah You and Kieran Marmion will complement the recently landed imports, while there will no doubt be a few covetous glances from the home crowd towards the Armagh-born openside Willie Faloon.

Connacht's visit last year saw Ulster in a similar state of despair, coming just one week after they were dumped out of Europe by Saracens at the quarter-final stage.

The response to adversity that night could hardly have been better as a hat-trick of scores from Andrew Trimble was the highlight of an eight-try romp that saw Ulster win 58-12.

What Neil Doak would give for a performance of that nature on Friday.

Belfast Telegraph


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