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Never mind Donald, Ulster must keep season alive against La Rochelle, blasts Gibbes

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster Rugby head coach Jono Gibbes would not be drawn on the province's impending signing of former All Black Stephen Donald at Kingspan Stadium yesterday, instead stressing that his sole focus was on Saturday's Champions Cup visit from La Rochelle (1pm kick-off).

Gibbes captained Donald at the Chiefs in New Zealand before moving north and becoming Leinster's forwards coach in 2008, but said any deal with his former team-mate, which the Belfast Telegraph yesterday revealed is to be rubber-stamped in the coming days, is the remit of his side's Operations Director Bryn Cunningham.

"I think I'll just leave that one for Bryn," said Gibbes. "I think the official thing is there's nothing to announce just yet. They'll get on top of that when they can.

"I've kind of consumed myself with getting other bits and pieces sorted out, putting my energy into what will actually make a difference on Saturday."

Given the magnitude of the upcoming contest and the side's recent struggles, the Kiwi's attention being elsewhere was perhaps understandable.

While La Rochelle stormed through the first three rounds of action in Pool One and took maximum points, their loss to Wasps in December saw their seemingly unstoppable march to the quarter-finals hit a speed bump.

Indeed, despite the gloom currently engulfing Kingspan Stadium after a wretched inter-pro series, a win on Saturday would actually see Ulster take over top spot ahead of a concluding trip to Wasps.

A first European knock-out tie since 2014 would be a considerable shot in the arm for Les Kiss' beleaguered coaching ticket, with Gibbes saying he expects his side to embrace the pressure.

"We know the size of the occasion and the quality of opposition on Saturday, but that's a good thing," he said. "It's where we want to be.

"It's good to be in round five and not just hanging in, but genuinely alive and with something tangible as a reward if we work extremely hard.

"What's the thing that has to happen for that to come to fruition? That's what we've got to put all our energy into.

"When you see games like Saturday, clearly that's what we should be focused on. We've got to focus on what we've got to do to put them under pressure for 80 minutes, make them uncomfortable here and give the best of ourselves."

With their French visitors second in the Top 14, and having already dismantled Ulster in the reverse fixture, it is clear that the northern province will need to be back to something resembling their best after being humbled by their near-neighbours in recent weeks.

A record defeat to Connacht before Christmas was followed by a thrilling turnaround victory against Munster on New Years Day.

Back to earth with a bump, Saturday's six-tries-to-one loss at Leinster showed just how far they are lagging behind Europe's upper echelon.

"We were second best in so many parts of the game," admitted Gibbes.

"We allowed Leinster to be extremely comfortable with and without the ball and we just have to look at where we can apply more pressure on our positions, where we can make them defend a little bit harder and make it more difficult for them on defence. And then obviously how do we make it harder for them on attack.

"I just thought we were two metres behind Leinster every time. They were faster than us, quicker than us into position, and we have had to address that. It's not a physical preparation thing, not that at all.

"It's a number of things. It's not just, (something you can say) 'There you go, that'll fix it.'

"It's all sorts of things. The assessments from outside the camp, yeah, they are pretty harsh, they are pretty strong.

"But the players hold themselves to a higher standard than what anyone else says they do. It's not just one thing, it's a combination of factors."

While Kiss' post-match assertion that he didn't think Leinster are "that much better than us" was uttered in the immediate aftermath, with the benefit of time to reflect Gibbes was more blunt about the gulf.

"There is no hiding from it and now it is just take what we can from that, use as much of it as we can and get as many things right as we can here on Saturday," he said.

"We were well beaten. You watched it and it was pretty clear who the second best team was on Saturday."

With wing Tommy Bowe already ruled out with the shoulder injury he picked up against Leinster, prop Wiehahn Herbst missed training yesterday with the ankle problem he suffered in the RDS.

And while Luke Marshall is still on the sidelines, both Chris Henry and Kieran Treadwell were back on the paddock at Pirrie Park yesterday.

Johnny McPhillips figures to provide fly-half back-up to Christian Leali'ifano after being named on the bench in the side's last three games.

In a move also revealed by the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Irish international and British Lion Jared Payne was de-registered from the Champions Cup squad to make room for the 20-year-old.

The naturalised Kiwi, who will now have no game time before the Six Nations and seems sure to miss out, has yet to play this season. He has been suffering from cervicogenic headaches since his early return from the British and Irish Lions tour last summer.

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