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Comment: Ulster's squad must improve or expectations will have to change

 

By Jonathan Bradley

After their first win in Belfast since 2009, Edinburgh's journey back home will have been a happy one on Friday night. And a short one.

Such are the joys of the Challenge Cup that the side from the Scottish capital have endured some mammoth away trips in recent seasons, Romania and Russia chief among them.

It wouldn't have been the worst idea for Ulster to ask for some travel tips.

With Duncan Weir's last-gasp drop goal knocking the province out of the Pro14's play-off places for the first time this season, the side are faltering at precisely the wrong moment and far from their current position setting them up only for a second straight season without knock-out rugby, even in an expanded play-off format, Ulster's place in Europe's top competition for next year is now under real threat.

At present, Jono Gibbes' side would be faced with a play-off against the fifth-placed team in the opposite conference - currently Connacht - for a Champions Cup spot. And while Ulster haven't lost to the westerners in Belfast since JFK was in office, in this of all years nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted.

While cynics may suggest that dropping into the second tier competition is the quickest way Ulster could improve their chances of ending a silverware drought that stretches back to 2006 - or even hope that the culture shock would kick-start a culture change - such an outlook would ignore both the potential presence of Clermont, Stade Francais, Leicester and Northampton in next year's tournament, as well as the prospective financial hit.

Given that greater academy production is the only thing that can reverse the regression that's taken hold, there is certainly something to be said for greater freedom to develop the likes of Johnny McPhillips, Mattie Rea, Matt Dalton and Jonny Stewart, but the hit to both the balance sheet and recruitment would likely be severe.

There is no doubt that visits from the likes Toulon and Saracens in recent seasons helped shift a number of season tickets, while the glamour so often lacking in the PRO14 is a driver for sponsors and corporate.

With Charles Piutau departing at the end of this season for a Bristol side who themselves will be playing Challenge Cup rugby there is a spot to be filled both in terms of a non-Irish qualified player and a big salary.

Recruiting a player of the required standard, especially in a more limited market so close to the World Cup, would be complicated by absence from Europe's elite.

At present though, that play-off now seems by far the most likely scenario. Two weeks ago, with a three-point lead over Edinburgh in the standings Ulster will have expected to be sitting pretty by this morning.

With a game against the Kings two Fridays ago and then the tussle with Richard Cockerill's men, nine points will have been the anticipated return. With Edinburgh's other game being against Leinster, a double-digit lead between the two today would not have been an outlandish expectation.

Instead, the two sides are level with Edinburgh ahead by virtue of games won. With only six games to go, things are trending in one direction.

The only thing working in Ulster's favour was a points buffer and a more favourable fixture list. Now they have neither.

Edinburgh have won eight of their last 10 league games, the only two defeats coming away to Glasgow and away to the Cheetahs. It's a run of form that dates back to September and to expect them to come unstuck now would require a serious reversal of fortunes. Indeed if they beat Ulster when the teams meet at Myreside in April, and overcome the likes of Dragons and Connacht before it, they may not need too many more points from their testing final two games.

In a way, the most worrying thing from an Ulster perspective on Friday night was their effort and commitment.

Gibbes said afterwards that nobody could question his side's desire and he was quite right. The hosts showed plenty of heart and sweated buckets for the cause. They really did appear to give everything and that wasn't enough to beat a middling PRO14 side at home. That's where this squad is at present and if that doesn't change, expectations will certainly have to.

Belfast Telegraph

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