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Cardiff loss proves poor form is the new norm for Ulster

Cardiff 35 - 17 Ulster

Feeling blue: Stuart McCloskey tries to make ground for Ulster against Cardiff Blues
Feeling blue: Stuart McCloskey tries to make ground for Ulster against Cardiff Blues

By Jonathan Bradley

Back in September, in just the season's second game, Ulster beat Benetton in Treviso after a game that saw few come away with much credit.

What was then Les Kiss's side led 21-0 after an hour but were holding on at the death as their hosts battled back. Ulster's failure to kick on and get a bonus point was the cause of much consternation at the time.

It was a similar story in November's reverse fixture, Ulster scraping by thanks to a late Andrew Trimble score in a 23-22 win. Again, the reaction to the win would have left you feeling that the victors had shipped a heavy loss.

If only we knew then what we know now. Today, those wins stand as Ulster's most important of the season. Kieran Crowley's men are certainly better than we thought, Ulster are decidedly worse.

But with a month to go in this season that can't end soon enough, the fact that Ulster took eight points and Treviso two from the head to heads rather than the other way round is all that has kept the Kingspan Stadium side teetering on the brink rather than diving head first over it.

While the northern province have a game in hand, Benetton have an easier run to the finish and, trailing by just a point in the standings, look the more likely to claim Conference B's spot in the one game play-off for a Champions Cup place.

After Ulster's latest defeat, it would take a foolhardy gambler to put his money on anything other than a season in the Challenge Cup.

Departing head coach Jono Gibbes, who will be back home in Waikato no matter what competition Ulster find themselves in, was typically blunt in his appraisal of his side's performance in Cardiff on Saturday, admitting that there was no positives to take from the four tries to one reverse.

"There's nothing that we want to be associated with," he said.

"We don't want to tolerate that or accept that. We worked hard during the week and that's a let down.

"That's a let down for a lot of people. There's guys not in the 23 that helped us prepare and they'll be sat at home watching that and they'll be rightfully, disgusted might be too strong, but certainly feeling let down.

"There's things that we've got to look at. Was the selection right?

"Did we coach well enough? The players will bring their final bit to the piece too. It's all something we've to look at.

"I think it's safe to assume all three weren't good enough. There's nothing really that we want to associate ourselves with from that performance.

"There's nothing in that performance that we aspire to be. There was nothing positive.

"It's not good enough and it doesn't reflect what we're trying to do, what we're trying to work in and what we're trying to put pride in.

"It's just not good enough. We have to look at ourselves and come up with an idea about what can transfer onto the pitch."

Given his forthright nature, and history of working with successful teams, there is little doubt that Gibbes told his players just how he felt in no uncertain terms.

Once again though the message seemed to be that this performance was not indicative of what this Ulster team are about. The more it happens, the more we have to accept that the opposite is true.

This was the seventh time this season that they've been beaten by more than two clear scores. Despite failing to win almost half their league games, they've picked up just two losing bonus points all season, and one of those came when losing to Zebre.

While good teams can limit the damage and still maximise their return from bad days, when Ulster are off key, they're tone deaf.

In the Arms Park on Saturday, they never seemed likely to bring anything back to Belfast. The contrast between a team playing with confidence - Cardiff have now won five in a row in the PRO14 - and one devoid of it was stark. From the moment man-of-the-match Jarrod Evans went over with less than two minutes to go, the narrative seemed set.

The host's ambitious brand of rugby on the fast track of an artificial surface was far too much for a disorganised defensive outfit to deal with.

The boot of John Cooney kept Ulster in touch as best he could but Cardiff's linespeed in defence left the visitors looking toothless with ball in hand.

In truth, the only real surprises were that Ulster were still in the game as the hour mark approached and that it took Cardiff a little over the 80 minutes to secure their deserved try bonus point.

Gibbes said that any attempt to predict what Ulster need from their remaining games would be a waste of his energy but it's sure to be on the minds' of fans over the next month.

A loss next time out in Edinburgh would mathematically end the province's somehow still lingering play-off hopes, but in this season of radically shifting ambitions it is the likely two victories from four games required to have any hope of Champions Cup rugby that will be considered the imperative.

After three losses on the spin, quite where they'd come from remains anyone's guess.

Belfast Telegraph

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