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Ulster must fight to stop season falling apart, says Henderson

 

By Michael Sadlier

If ever Ulster needed a reaction then it has to come on New Year's Day when Munster rack up at Kingspan Stadium.

The crushing defeat at Connacht last Saturday will have to be well and truly expunged from the collective memory, and not just because of the pressure Les Kiss is facing but also to bolster the squad's place in the Conference B table with Edinburgh now breathing down their necks for ownership of third and a crucial play-off spot.

And with Leinster in Dublin five days later - a far from happy hunting ground - Kiss' squad must do a job on Munster, who may well travel with a diluted side, before then returning to Europe where they have a chance of qualifying should they topple La Rochelle at home and then Wasps away.

It's a serious block of games up until the end of January, but should the wheels continue to come off then Ulster's season faces the possibility of being definitely over in Europe and in very bad shape indeed back in the Guinness PRO14.

With a nine-day break in games between last Saturday's record 44-16 tanking in Galway and Munster arriving in Belfast - albeit with Christmas following swiftly after the trip to Connacht - Kiss at least has time to prepare his injury-hit squad for this bolted-on must-win clash on the opening day of 2018.

The Australian should have Jean Deysel back on board for the first time since October to at least give Ulster some serious ball-carrying, while Christian Leali'ifano should be back after being rested along with the hopefully recovered Charles Piutau and Rob Herring.

And Kiss knows that he cannot afford to open the New Year in the way his squad saw off 2017 - despite Connacht being only Ulster's fourth reverse of the season - though his plan was always probably more likely to involve the strongest team available to him for Munster.

It's the manner of their recent stuttering wins over the Southern Kings, Benetton and then the draw at the Dragons which had already got the alarm bells ringing. And, though the back-to-back European victories over Harlequins offered the hope that a corner had been turned, what occurred at Connacht trashed any notion that Ulster are in a good place.

Though it is unclear if Iain Henderson will go again after a heavy playing schedule, the stand-in skipper has made no secret of the fact that Ulster must do the business on January 1.

"We have to go into Munster and try and realise we have to start against Munster the way Connacht did against us," he said. "The pressure is in backing up performances and doing it again and again which is something Ulster have lacked in previous seasons.

"That's what makes a winning team, a trophy-winning team, and we have to concentrate on that now.

"This block (of games) was always going to be a tough block and over the next weeks a fair amount of hard work will have to be put in."

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