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Crisis looms for Ulster unless Doak's men can bounce back

By Michael Sadlier

You can already sense that the wagons are being circled at the Kingspan Stadium. Six days after Ulster had effectively slunk out of Europe and they end up on the end of a PRO12 pasting at the Ospreys, a place, incidentally, where their recent record had been in rude health.

In truth, the scoreline actually flattered the visitors and leaving aside the controversial officiating regarding Ian Humphreys' try that was, was again and then wasn't, at the end of the first half, the fact of the matter was that another malfunctioning display from Ulster was given its ultimate punishment.

The Ospreys crossed the Ulster line on four occasions, and in doing so became the first side to achieve this feat since the Scarlets on the PRO12's opening day back in September, and simply shredded the visitors' defensive set-up, making a mockery of their opponents' reputation for mean defending.

After the crushing disappointment of defeat at the Scarlets on the Sunday - where they came close to pulling it out of the fire - this was arguably an even bigger blow as Ulster found themselves staring at a 31-6 deficit before even an hour had been played and in an inescapable place in terms of avoiding a second straight loss in less than a week.

It didn't look any better when you stood back from their first back-to-back reverses since October's first two rounds of Europe, as Saturday night's thumping was actually a third defeat in their last four games in all competitions, a statistic Neil Doak and his coaching squad will now be working all out to halt come Boxing Night when a confident Connacht hit town.

And it also meant that Ulster have slipped out of the PRO12's top four just at a time when they really needed to make a statement in the wake of their European slump, never mind the importance of chalking up the wins in their pursuit of a play-off semi-final and preferably a home one.

Doak was asked afterwards if he was concerned at Ulster's away record this season - one win in seven - and though he didn't elaborate on that thought it is clearly a matter of deep concern.

You can't help but wonder what Les Kiss must be making of all this as Ulster's PRO12 campaign now comes under severe pressure to keep itself heading in the right direction and this will hardly have been helped by the sight of Ruan Pienaar sitting on the bench after failing to return following half-time with his knee - the same one he injured playing for the Springboks in September ­- iced up and not looking good.

True, the injury profile has proved very damaging but Ulster are now finding out the hard way that their strength in depth just isn't what they would hope it to be with the composition of the back row looking particularly vulnerable in this regard.

So, are the wheels coming off? Possibly. Again Ulster were unable to produce a consistency in performance.

One week it's the scrum, then it improves but the defence goes to pot and the lineout suffers some notable wobbles. It just seems that, at the moment, this squad is really struggling to get itself playing at the needed optimum level to produce solid performances in every area.

A galling example came in Saturday's first half when first Ian Humphreys and then Ruan Pienaar missed finding touch from penalties which were intended to be put in the corner to allow Ulster launch their lineout maul.

That was emblematic of a misfiring effort which just couldn't live with the way the Ospreys decided to play, running dazzling lines from everywhere and offloading at will.

If this cannot be solved - and soon - then the outcome will see Doak's men gradually lose touch with the PRO12's top four and could, heaven forbid, even potentially threaten their place in next season's Champions Cup.

Yes, that's a bit of a Doomsday scenario but, right now, if Ulster don't sort themselves out then, well, anything could happen.

From the very outset at the Ospreys, who now top the league after avenging last month's defeat in Belfast, Doak's men looked shaken with Dan Tuohy smashed backwards in a double-hit from Alun Wyn Jones and flanker James King.

And then second row Wyn Jones and prop Marc Thomas combined to easily unlock Ulster's defence for Dan Biggar to score in the 17th minute and convert after the scores had been locked at 3-3.

With Ulster frantically scrambling in defence - Rory Best's nailing of Dan Evans saving one situation - it didn't help when Humphreys opted to avoid a possible charge-down by trying to clear a dangerous situation with his weaker right foot.

He sliced the ball and invited the Ospreys to attack, destroy Ulster's first-up defence with Rhys Webb scoring his first.

Biggar's conversion made it 17-3 ahead of the confusion which Nigel Owens helped finally sort out just before half-time after it seemed Humphreys had snaffled a touchdown and referee Neil Paterson had awarded the score - twice it seemed - before the error was spotted.

Ulster can feel aggrieved at the replays being taken back to spot Josh Matavesi's forward pass which cancelled out the advantage being played to the Welsh side by Mr Paterson, but them's the breaks.

Humphreys' early second half penalty was a brief interlude as first Webb,again after a lengthy look from the TMO, and then Hanno Dirksen, the latter smashing through Humphreys for the try bonus, crossed the line.

At 31-6, Ulster did at least get two tries, from Rob Herring and Tommy Bowe on his first return to his old stomping ground, though it did look as if Stuart Olding had obstructed a defender.

No matter, though, the game was gone anyway and now Ulster simply must recover or begin the New Year staring at a very real sense of meltdown.

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