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Comment: Why Ulster's inadequacies cannot be down to just one man

By Jonathan Bradley

Off the back of another derby humiliation, the harsh reality for Ulster fans is that there is no quick fix for their ailing side.

While those still denying there is reason for concern can keep pointing to the team's win-loss record this season, it seems impossible that any impartial observer could peruse the northern province's last three games and surmise that all is rosy in the garden.

Having suffered a record defeat to Connacht in Galway just before Christmas, Leinster almost repeated the dose over the weekend, their 38-7 win falling just short of the 34-point margin inflicted all the way back in 1908.

The results have increased calls for Director of Rugby Les Kiss to be relieved of his duties, with his defensive expertise not preventing the side from shipping more scores than ever.

But those who think that one man alone could be responsible for such meek showings in what should be the most intense games of the year could face something of a rude awakening.

Another defeat at home to La Rochelle on Saturday would torpedo any hopes of getting back to the last eight of Europe for a first time since 2014.

It was then that Ulster took on Saracens with a teamsheet that read J Payne, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, T Bowe, P Jackson, R Pienaar, T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams.

Just four of those men took part on Saturday night, and few could have any qualms with the contribution that Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Rory Best and Darren Cave have made to Ulster over the course of their careers.

But how many of the departed have been adequately replaced by new men coming through? Where are Ulster better now than they were then?

Rugby can be a cyclical game - you only have to look at the grumblings heard in Leinster just a few years ago - but the fall implies that somebody somewhere has been asleep at the wheel.

We're told the Ulster Academy has been restocked under Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson, and there are certainly players in the current crop that show promise, but the senior side cannot hope to keep pace with their neighbours until they produce pro players at a similar rate.

Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson are seen as crown jewels, but there is little point manufacturing the odd Ferrari if there's still smoke coming from under the bonnet of the bus.

The road to success for Irish provinces will always be bringing through a steady stream of young players and the can to be carried for Ulster failing to do so pre-dates those on the current coaching ticket. Nobody does it better than Leinster.

While Kiss is missing plenty at present, and it would be churlish to gloss over the fact that Marcell Coetzee, Paddy Jackson and Jared Payne have played an hour of rugby between them this season, the sight of what Leo Cullen held in reserve on Saturday was again instructive.

As the cameras in the RDS panned into the player's box, it was an unwelcome reminder that the hosts were inflicting this beating without the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, James Lowe, James Ryan and Rhys Ruddock.

It was not that long ago that Ulster's CEO talked about being the best team in Ireland, then Europe and the world. Today it seems likely their nearest rivals could beat them with two different teams.

Europe will provide a distraction in the coming weeks, although how welcome will depend on results, but the ultimate goal of silverware seems as far away as it has been for quite some time.

Belfast Telegraph


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