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'Struggling' Ulster defence can plug leaks, insists Ludik

Harlequins vs Ulster; European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1; Twickenham Stoop, Sunday, 1pm

By Michael Sadlier

Though defeat has been dodged in the last three games, Ulster arrive at their Champions Cup double-header in a clearly less than ebullient mood.

The memory of the tanking they took at La Rochelle in their last European outing in October is still fresh enough, as is what has unfolded since.

A home Guinness PRO14 defeat to Leinster immediately followed, along with misfiring wins over Southern Kings and Benetton before last weekend's draw at the Dragons.

Heading to the Twickenham Stoop with this as a backdrop for the first of two pivotal European games with Harlequins was never exactly part of the plan.

And though Quins have lost their first two pool games and already look out of touch at the bottom of the group, the Premiership side are at home and feeling good about themselves after turning Saracens over last weekend.

Quins definitely won't be obliging Les Kiss' side - whose wobbly set-pieces and suspect defence have been highly visible - by rolling over and doing the decent thing.

Even Louis Ludik's normally upbeat outlook has taken a bit of a hit at Ulster's recent inability to comfortably beat teams they should be seeing off with greater ease.

And when quizzed on whether Ulster's chopping and changing regarding their midfield combinations - since beating Wasps in mid-October, the province haven't retained an identical centre pairing for two games running - has contributed to them conceding a grand total of 15 tries when the scores are totted up from the games against La Rochelle, Southern Kings and the Dragons alone, Ludik attempts a robust defence of the issue.

"I wouldn't say that it's down to the centres," said the 31-year-old South African, who has been flitting between midfield, wing and full-back so far this campaign.

"The only time the centres are really together (defensively) is off first phase and after that everyone works together.

"There's never a perfect game and you always struggle with something and, at the moment, we might be struggling a bit with defence."

Surrendering your line 11 times in the last three games suggests a real live issue, but the Irish-qualified Ludik continues his theme.

"We've leaked a couple of tries that we shouldn't have," he said while stressing that they are scoring them too.

"But it's always tough, and we just need to correct them and go for it this weekend and hope it works out."

Next up is wondering why Ulster have been failing to close out games when leading, with the last-minute rescue over Benetton and failure to do likewise last week in the drawn Dragons clash being the most obvious cases.

"We should be finishing off teams and putting them to the sword, so that's a massive focus for us," said Ludik.

"You learn a lot from it. At the end of the day, though, when you are leading games you have to finish strong."

Not that Quins have been pulling up trees either with their form, and they are also prone to giving up as many tries as they score.

Indeed, this game was pretty much targeted from the get-go by Ulster as bringing their most likely away win in Europe which would then, theoretically, deliver the home result five days later to propel the province further forward.

But taking the full set of points from these back-to-back games has not generally proved easy for Ulster, with only their recent Toulouse victories in 2015 - when Ludik played in both - and the double defeat of Bath back in 2010 being notable and non-Italian.

The five-day turnaround before the sides meet again at Kingspan Stadium will certainly be a factor - but for both teams, as Ludik points out.

What matters now is emulating Leicester Tigers and La Rochelle and becoming the third side to win at the Stoop this season.

"We have to win these two to stay in the game," was Ludik's brief, but very accurate, summation.

"But it doesn't matter how many points you score, you have to defend and that is going to be key for us."

No argument there, Louis.

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