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Neil Doak faces battle as pressure takes its toll on Ulster

By Michael Sadlier

Sunday has a far more worrying look about it than it ought to which is a reflection of just where Ulster are at the moment - in anything but a good looking place.

The trip to Treviso should really be about bagging the win and moving on but such has been Ulster's season so far that basically nothing is straightforward anymore.

After all, the last trip to Italy back in September saw an Ulster side - and one which lost Declan Fitzpatrick to a red card - splutter their way to defeat at Zebre and, since then, Neil Doak's men have also continued to be beaten away from the Kingspan in both the PRO12 and Europe.

In all, six straight defeats - four in the league and two in Europe - have fallen Ulster's way while they have been on their travels and though their European hopes look effectively done and dusted, shipping further damage to their PRO12 hopes is looking increasingly non-negotiable.

The current table, though, does not look maybe so dispiriting with Ulster just one place and a single point behind fourth-placed Leinster and two points separating Doak's squad from Munster who sit in third while the two southern provinces have also managed to lose four league games each.

And Ulster's record at the Kingspan has so far - Toulon aside - proved encouragingly bullet proof.

All that is fine and their six home victories in the PRO12 have ensured that they are in the upper regions of the table and still very much in the chase to potentially achieve the essential requirement of a play-off semi-final and maybe even yet a home one at that.

And the argument can be made that their last three away defeats in the league have been to sides all fairly likely to make the play-offs - Munster, the Ospreys and Leinster - and therefore are teams who are unlikely to roll over at home but, ultimately, someone is going to have to miss out here as Glasgow are currently in second.

Yet all is far from well. The gnawing fear is that an increasingly edgy looking Ulster may be the ones who find themselves frozen out at the business end of the season.

Three more defeats will equal the amount they shipped last time out when the side then coached by Mark Anscombe just scraped into a fourth place finish.

That skin of the teeth achievement was somewhat offset by the fact that Ulster had topped their pool in Europe with six wins from six and, largely thanks to the ill-fortune of Jared Payne's red card, had narrowly exited the competition to Saracens last April in Belfast.

But back to the here and now. There must also be real concern that of Ulster's five remaining away fixtures, the trips to the Galway Sportsground - where Connacht are unbeaten this season - and Scotstoun will not yield Ulster favourable results while Leinster's visit to Belfast in late April has also not brought much in the way of happy hunting to the host side over the last decade.

The injuries have been truly ruinous - having Iain Henderson, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne and Nick Williams out for significant periods of time along with Chris Henry's health issue while Ruan Pienaar is clearly not operating at full throttle - and having such a cadre of key playmakers all on the treatment table has had a huge impact.

Paddy Jackson has also been in and out due to injury and with both first choice half-backs having missed out on sections of the season, the difficulty for Ulster has only steepened while the new signings have also arguably not had the desired impact.

And the pressure has told on the pitch where Ulster have largely only played in patches with all elements of their game rarely working in sync. The lack of consistency, and the worrying tendency to seemingly switch off during games, along with their ill-discipline away from home, have left the impression that there are real problems at the core of the squad.

The concession of last Saturday's first try when Ian Madigan tricked everyone - his own team-mates included - to tap and go and score when it seemed he was poised to kick a penalty close to the Ulster line into touch was beyond awful.

It was just one of a number of high profile errors which have crept into this side's game and cost them dear. Missed kicks and botched scores have featured rather highly recently.

The argument can be counterbalanced by saying that Ulster have got close to winning games at Munster, the Scarlets and Ospreys but, as ever, all that counts is simply winning.

It also hasn't helped that Doak is effectively having to operate as director of rugby and head coach, until Les Kiss is due to arrive next autumn, which is less than ideal after the tumultuous summer, and especially so with the pressure now growing to turn things around and fast.

Weariness could also be setting in for some of his overworked players having to patch over the cracks in the squad's fitness while confidence will surely also be suffering. Doak and skipper Rory Best know they have their work cut out now to either overcome this challenging time or succumb to the difficulty.

Above all, though, their actions are critical to avoid the unthinkable of a season slipping away early.

Belfast Telegraph

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