Allen Clarke urging Ulster to fire early warning
After a host of slow starts, forwards coach Allen Clarke wants Ulster to fly out of the traps against Cardiff on Sunday.
In their last four games, the province have been sluggish during the opening exchanges and, while they led at half-time in an eventual 21-20 loss to Scarlets last weekend, it was only thanks to two eye-catching scores in an otherwise forgettable performance.
With a run-in that includes inter-pros against Leinster and Connacht in Belfast, as well as trips to Glasgow and Ospreys, the Kingspan outfit know they must make the most of the next two games - Cardiff this weekend then Zebre at home - if they are to consolidate their place in the PRO12 play-off positions and Clarke is calling for his side to set the tone from the first minute in the Welsh capital.
"There's a certain level of performance required for the jersey and if you're picked you have to measure up to that," said the 1999 European Cup winning hooker.
"You can't assume that it'll be good. You've got to go hard from the off. Maybe we thought it would happen, or that somebody else would do it, but you need 15 people really on their game from the start.
"All that physicality and energy that we're known for, it wasn't there for enough minutes of the game (against Scarlets).
"If you allow teams to play from the start then they're on the front foot. We didn't force Scarlets into doing something special so the pressure was taken off them.
"We got ourselves back into a one score game, but we're really disappointed we couldn't find a way to convert some of our territorial possession.
"For us, we've now got to get together and go to Cardiff, who were unfortunate against Leinster (last weekend). We're still in a decent position in the league and it's all to play for. You've got to grab these points."
Following their latest off-key opening, Ulster improved against Scarlets after the turn but could muster only three points in the second-half, a profligacy in opposition territory that Clarke says must improve this weekend on the fast track of the artificial pitch at the Arms Park.
"There was an awareness of where we were in the first-half and what we needed to do but our inability to convert when we got into the right areas was uncharacteristic," he reflected.
"It's been good for us but we're very disappointed with our return from the green zone. We were inconsistent. Too many uncharacteristic mistakes cost us. We got what we deserved."
In a game decided by the slenderest of margins, Clarke insists that the coaching ticket will continue to back players who back themselves. Ulster turned down a kickable shot at goal on more than one occasion when, in the end, a solitary penalty would have made all the difference.
Clarke, however, stressed that the loss did not boil down to a handful of key moments, but a lacklustre showing over the course of 80 minutes.
"Throughout this season we've backed the players and the players have made really good decisions," he said. "Sometimes they come back and bite you. We'll assess it this week but that wasn't a defining factor of the game. We'll focus across the 80 minutes.
"There are always key moments and I think sometimes you can get too hung up on those one or two things.
"It's more about the team performance and all the aspects of our play."