Kiss admits Ulster entering a season-defining period in Pro12
After losing to Scarlets in the PRO12 in west Wales last weekend, Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss has admitted his side now must face up to what is a defining period of their season.
Ahead of the conclusion of the Champions Cup pools over the next fortnight - Ulster can still make the competition's last eight but must beat Exeter on Sunday, as well as Bordeaux-Begles the following week, and hope that other results go their way - the province's latest defeat was their seventh from their last 11 games in all competitions, a run that has left their domestic play-off hopes in a seemingly precarious state
"We are not in the ideal position, but we are still contenders," said Kiss, who arrived at Kingspan Stadium in a permanent capacity in November 2015.
"The players certainly believe it in the sheds and we have to make sure we dust off and get up for two big Champions Cup games against two big teams.
"We then get back on the horse for the PRO12. It will be an important Six Nations period for us. We will have injured players hopefully coming back by then, which will be a big plus for us and just give our squad a bit of depth.
"It's a big eight weeks for us."
There can be little overstating of that fact with the side currently sitting in sixth place on the PRO12 ladder, in the final spot that would guarantee top-level European rugby next season.
For Kiss, the need to take his squad to the play-offs, something they have managed in every season since 2012, is obvious, even if Pat Lam's success with Connacht and the Westerners' most unlikely of title triumphs last year shows the value of patience when allowing a new coach's methods to bed in.
The numbers this season, however, do make for somewhat daunting reading.
Since the addition of Italian sides in 2010-11, and the move to a 22-game schedule, the PRO12's fourth-placed team has averaged 67 points in the final standings with a further seven generally required for a home semi-final.
Ulster, who have secured 33 points from their 12 games to date, are clearly some way off the necessary pace and would need to average over three points a game between now and the end of the campaign to hit a tally that would be expected to net a play-off place.
And while their run of upcoming fixtures offers cause for optimism - three of the next five in the league will come against Zebre or Treviso - the side are in a position where they can ill-afford any more unexpected slip-ups, even with their core Ireland contingent unlikely to play another league game until April due to the Six Nations.
Interestingly in their favour, however, the losing bonus point picked up in Parc y Scarlets saw the province improve upon their tally from the corresponding games last season.
Taking the same 12 fixtures from a year ago - Kiss' first season in Belfast when the side managed 69 points, an identical tally to that under Neil Doak the previous year and one fewer than in the final season of Mark Anscombe's tenure - the return was actually seven points fewer, given that the side have already won three fixtures they lost last season, away to Glasgow and Cardiff, as well as home to Scarlets.
Looming large, though, are the trio of fixtures that will round out the campaign.
Ulster travel to Munster and Ospreys before hosting Leinster on the final weekend, knowing that a repeat of last season's tally of 11 points from those games would require a substantial upturn in form and fortunes. Now is the time to make ground.