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Depleted Ulster slump to their worst run in five years

Edinburgh 28 Ulster 17

By Jonathan Bradley

An abject hour of rugby against Edinburgh last night consigned Ulster to a third straight Guinness PRO12 defeat - their worst league run in five years - with their strong start to the campaign quickly becoming little more than a distant memory.

Having reeled off five victories to start the season, the province have lost four of five in all competitions since, their latest reverse coming after a performance which saw Edinburgh lead 28-3 before a late fightback.

Debutant Aaron Cairns and fellow replacement Jacob Stockdale (right) crossed for second-half scores, while a Charles Piutau effort that seemingly should have stood was chalked off, but the damage was long since done in a showing that lacked solidity in defence and fluidity in attack.

Indeed, with Viliame Mata, Damien Hoyland and Magnus Bradbury all scoring in the first 47 minutes, the side from the Scottish capital may have ended the night with a tinge of regret over their failure to land the four-try bonus point.

Ulster remain fifth after their worst losing streak in the league since the 2011-12 campaign - the last season incidentally that they failed to make the play-offs - and will end the weekend three points outside of the top four with more than a third of the season gone.

Having lost three of their last four coming into last night, confidence in the camp will no doubt have been brittle, even against an opponent who suffered the indignity of a home defeat to Zebre last time out.

And with a make-shift side that featured a ten-twelve axis of Sam Windsor and Brett Herron who possessed only five caps between them, the start was disjointed and, against hosts who seemed intent on making an early statement, there was only one side in it from the off.

Mata, the Fijian who won an Olympic gold medal in Rio this summer, was the architect of the quick start with a second-minute try - and Ulster missed three tackles in the build-up.

It was a problem that would plague the Ulster effort all evening long.

With 10 minutes gone, Edinburgh were in again as the visitors' defence around the fringes of the ruck went missing in action as Hoyland's quick pick and go saw him across the whitewash with ease.

While Ulster were also massively understrength due to international commitments and injury, an Edinburgh team ravaged by unavailability were in control of proceedings.

Les Kiss' men could inject no tempo into their attack, a spilled ball by skipper Rob Herring in midfield summing up their opening quarter.

When the South African native gave away a penalty, Blair Kinghorn knocked the ball over from an almighty distance and earned a 15-point lead.

Even when Ulster belatedly got on the board, a penalty from Ruan Pienaar after good work from Sean Reidy, they gifted the points straight back with another needless penalty concession.

As half-time neared, there was still time for replacement out-half and Scottish international Duncan Weir to extend the lead further with another effort off the tee.

Things initially improved a little after the turn but Edinburgh soon scored their third of the evening with another quick score.

Former Ulster wing Michael Allen, on as a half-time sub, took advantage of a fortuitous bounce and passive defending to send the charging Bradbury into space and across for the score.

The conversion, however, proved to be the hosts' final points of the game.

When Kiwi Piutau had a try harshly ruled out for an alleged knock-on, it seemed increasingly unlikely that this was ever to be Ulster's night.

Still, the visiting substitutes lifted the performance with Paul Marshall's introduction seeing Pienaar switch to out-half and, coupled with a strong cameo from Stockdale, it brought a genuine improvement.

And while Ulster will sweat over a knee injury to tighthead Ross Kane - only involved in the contest after original starter Callum Black was pulled from the team late on after the birth of his second child - the game will at least live long in the memory for one man.

Cairns, the province's Club Player of the Year last season and an international at sevens level, made his debut off the bench in the 64th minute and scored his first try only moments later.

The wing, who has excelled for the 'A' side this season, got up well to claim a high and bouncing ball chipped over by Pienaar before touching down.

Enjoying their best spell in a game that didn't have much competition for the title, Ulster got over for a second through Stockdale with just under 10 minutes remaining.

The next score, which would at least have brought a losing bonus point for Kiss' side, did not arrive.

With a two-week break before they welcome Zebre to the Kingspan Stadium, Ulster have a fortnight to find answers after a performance that again offered only questions.

Edinburgh: B Kinghorn; D Hoyland, C Dean, P Burleigh, T Brown; J Tovey, S Kennedy; J Cosgrove, N Cochrane, M McCallum; B Toolis, F McKenzie; V Mata, J Ritchie, M Bradbury. Replacements: S McInally (for Cochrane, 62), K Whyte, F Arregui (for McCallum 58), L Carmichael, C du Preez (for Mata, 45), S Hidalgo-Clyne, D Weir (for Tovey, 23), M Allen (for Brown, 40)

Ulster: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S Windsor, R Lyttle, B Herron, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Herring (capt), W Herbst, D Tuohy, F van der Merwe, P Browne, C Ross, S Reidy. Replacements: J Andrew (for Herring 72), A Warwick (for McCall, 55), R Kane (for Herbst, 40), R Diack, C Joyce (for Tuohy, 40), P Marshall (for Windsor, 64), A Cairns (for Bowe, 64), J Stockdale (for Herron, 42)

Referee: Andy Brace

Man of the match: Mata

Match Rating: 4/10

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