Lyttle exposes Ulster frustration at 'bad performance' as draw follows cull of internationals
Having hoped to use the Six Nations period as a springboard for a play-off push, Ulster's Rob Lyttle was left a hugely frustrated figure after the side's first game minus their Ireland internationals ended in a 17-17 home draw with Benetton.
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Despite scoring a try through Louis Ludik after less than a minute, the Italian visitors got the better of the game right until the moment Nigel Owens awarded Dan McFarland's men a penalty try in the last action of the contest.
The share of the spoils kept Ulster fifth in the table but represents something of a missed opportunity given that, thanks to results elsewhere, victory would have had them second only to Leinster going into a two-week break.
And while Lyttle was a bright performer off the bench in the game, he was in no mood to sugar-coat the late escape act.
"We're not going to hide our disappointment," said the young winger. "We were setting out for this period during the Six Nations to put in a big performance and move up the table. We didn't do that. Yes, we got over the line at the end but we're hugely disappointed not to win."
Having claimed a Champions Cup quarter-final berth in their past two games, Lyttle didn't, however, believe that the return to PRO14 action was the reason for disjointed showing.
"After big weeks in Europe there is a serious high and then obviously boys go off to the Six Nations and other teams would dip in form," Lyttle said. "But for us we really wanted to target this period and kick on.
"That's probably why we're so disappointed because we want to win those games that wouldn't be as big as European games. It was just a bad performance."
McFarland's mood was no better. Having spoken some 10 weeks ago about the significance of this period leading up to the Six Nations, his side ended up with European knock-out rugby to look forward to but a battle to finish in the top three and secure a Champions Cup spot for next season.
Faltering one week before the break - as well as in two of three festive interpros - will raise the notion that fatigue played it's part in what is a small squad.
"Perhaps it was a factor," mused McFarland. "I did not anticipate it being a factor but maybe it was.
"Look, the lads went out there and you saw they fought to the end there was certainly no giving up in there. It is a question of not executing correctly as we went through.
"In terms of the break, yeah we will have to freshen up, we have some really big games coming up, we are two points behind Benetton so it is out of our hands whether we can finish ahead of them, we have got to start picking up points now.
"We got big games coming up we will have the same set of players out there playing and we will have to perform better than that because there is not a chance we will beat Ospreys (on February 15) if they are like that.
"There have been big improvements (this season) . If we want to go to where we want to go to, nights like this, we have got to play well, I am not saying we have to win, but we have got to play well and we didn't."
When recounting Ulster's most disappointing days in this campaign, such as the record defeat at Munster and away day humblings to both Connacht and Leinster have all come when the panel has been shorn of their Irish internationals.
By the time their Six Nations contingent return, there will likely only be three PRO14 games remaining, putting huge importance on the next quartet of games while most eyes are on Joe Schmidt's men. McFarland though accepts the strain placed upon his squad.
"We have also got to bear in mind that when we are talking about the depth," he added.
"When the squad is changed since last season the very senior players have been replaced by very young players who are cutting their teeth in a very, very difficult Conference. That is going to take time.