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Comment: Alarming stats prove Ulster's defensive woes as season hangs in the balance

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Confidence and momentum, like your car keys, can seem almost impossible to find once misplaced.

It's a problem that Ulster are discovering to their cost of late, especially after what, not so long ago, was expected to be the culmination of a morale boosting three wins on the spin turned into anything but in Friday's dramatic 32-32 draw with Dragons.

Having entered November on the back of defeats to La Rochelle and Leinster, a forgiving fixture list gave the province every opportunity to get things back on track before this weekend's resumption of European action and a decisive double-header against Harlequins.

A trip to the Southern Kings, who had yet to bank a single PRO14 point when Ulster pitched up in Port Elizabeth, followed by the hosting of Benetton and Friday's visit to the Dragons, should have been yielding close to a full return if Les Kiss's men were to challenge for trophies come May.

And while the 12 points banked may not seem far off, the manner of the three performances showed just how much work Ulster still need to do in comparison to those above them.

The wins against Southern Kings and Benetton were hardly convincing, while Friday's late fireworks should not distract from the fact that Ulster should long have had the game sewn up.

With 13 minutes to go, leading by a score of 27-15, everything appeared to be in order as the visitors had used a strong start to the second-half to seemingly secure five points from a contest that again saw them only perform in fits and starts.

But when three quick tries were given up all too easily, they were suddenly staring down the barrel of an embarrassing collapse.

An 81st minute try from Christian Leali'ifano clawed back one surrendered point, but Ulster's late fragility still meant two dropped.

For all the talk of Rodney Parade being a "difficult" place to go, teams with silverware ambitions won't drop points there when scoring five tries, and failure to win will rightly raise yet more questions about Ulster's wholly sub-par defensive showings this year.

When camped on their own line or under pressure, this is a team that has shown the necessary appetite for battle on more than one occasion over the past two months, but the stats don't lie and it is clear there are real problems with either the defensive system or its application.

How else can you explain the 28 league tries shipped in just ten games?

That startling figure is already more than Ulster conceded in the whole of the 2013/14 campaign when Mark Anscombe was head coach and the defence was designed by European Cup winner Jonny Bell, now with Gloucester in the Aviva Premiership.

If Ulster keep allowing their line to be breached at the same rate - and the fixtures get tougher after Christmas -they would give up 58 scores over the course of the season. Such a tally would be their worst in any iteration of this league, with their previous high of 47 itself coming only last season.

The ease with which Dragons advanced into Ulster's '22' on Friday was most damning, especially the space allowed in the wider channels despite not committing their numbers to the breakdown.

And while the various aspects of the game of rugby are obviously connected - for example, a by product of better discipline and an effective set-piece on Friday night would surely have been an improved defence - recent frailties have only increased the pressure on Les Kiss.

A noted defensive specialist when he arrived in Belfast, it is safe to assume this remains a primary area of responsibility, even with job titles on the ticket deliberately vague. Should it continue to hold the team back, there will be nowhere to hide.

With four European games - starting with Sunday's trip to a Harlequins side buoyed by yesterday's win over European champions Saracens - and three interpros in the next seven contests, action must be swift given the genuine possibility that a run of defeats could leave the campaign in tatters by late January.

Another lost season would be almost impossible to excuse.

Belfast Telegraph

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