Buck stops with Les Kiss for Ulster's failures, insists Neil Best
Former Ulster ace and Ireland international Neil Best believes it's high time the province made a case for the defence this season.
With 28 tries conceded in the league, as well as five in two European games, the province are leaking over a score per game, more than the likes of Leinster, Munster and Glasgow this Guinness PRO14 campaign.
The side's apparent defensive frailties, which have seen them concede close to three tries a game in domestic competition, again proved their undoing in the 32-32 draw with Dragons last Friday night.
Leading by 12 points in the 67th minute, the side shipped three quick scores in the final stages to leave themselves scrambling to rescue the situation in the closing seconds.
While the last-gasp try from Christian Leali'ifano salvaged a stalemate, head coach Jono Gibbes admitted afterwards that it would have felt unjust if the same player's conversion had stolen back victory with the final action of the game.
Best, who won 18 Ireland caps and also enjoyed spells with Northampton and Worcester after leaving his native province, found the final quarter of the game tough to stomach.
"When Ulster should have been really turning the screw in the last 20, they found themselves disjointed and eventually chasing the game," he lamented.
"Defensively, the line-speed was pedestrian and Ulster didn't appear to be effectively shaping where the Dragons played in possession.
"While they have picked up two wins and a draw in their last three, Ulster have now conceded 90 points in the three games against teams who, between them, have only won five from 30 this season."
For Best, who formed part of a devastatingly physical back-row with Stephen Ferris and Roger Wilson when Ulster last won what was then the Celtic League back in 2006, the side's forward unit hasn't been producing as required in recent weeks.
With Iain Henderson on international duty with Ireland - although the British and Irish Lion looks more and more like his future is at lock - and injuries to bruising South African imports Marcell Coetzee and Jean Deysel, Les Kiss has been forced to throw a number of back-row Academy products in at the deep end.
Often criticised for bringing too few forwards through in recent years, the trend has at least been bucked by debuts for Aaron Hall, Matt Dalton and Greg Jones, while Nick Timoney is emerging as one real positive.
But, with those young players being used out of necessity rather than choice, and still adjusting to the level, Best does not think Ulster are getting the best out of their under-manned pack.
"Consistently patchy performances are in large part down to the way in which the players are being asked to play," he said.
"We all know the talent in the Ulster backline, but the forwards need to be given the chance to play themselves into the game and that's just not happening.
"It feels like there is a lack of a clear structure and gameplan. We didn't see a pattern of Ulster consistently targeting and attacking the Dragons' weaknesses. Even when Ulster did build a lead by the midpoint in each half, they fell away.
"Les Kiss came to Ulster with the reputation of being a master of defence, but not on this evidence. When you see how this season feels like it's panning out, the buck has to stop with him."
The margin for error will be slim over the next fortnight when European action resumes and Ulster face back-to-back games with London outfit Harlequins starting on Sunday.
The Twickenham side have had a decidedly mixed season themselves, but have been boosted by last weekend's win over Saracens.
The sight of Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler and Danny Care back in harness and beating Mark McCall's two-time European champions will have been enough to put some Ulster fans off their Sunday dinner.
The club's issues this season, though, have been similar to Ulster's - too many tries conceded. Sitting seventh in the standings after the banner win over Sarries, only bottom club London Irish have been breached more regularly.
Scoring has been no problem - indeed, they have more tries to their name than David Humphreys' Gloucester, who have risen to second in the table - but they have allowed 30 points or more on eight occasions in all competitions.
It is the fixtures further down the track that worry Best, with Munster, Leinster, Wasps and La Rochelle all to come before the Six Nations break.
"While they may get a result or two against Harlequins, who have had some defensive problems themselves, if Ulster continue to ship points like this, the series of games in January is going to be hard for the fans," he warned.