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Ulster are on the ropes, but senior stars can come out fighting and salvage season

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster's season isn't over…even if it feels like it after last weekend.

Gauging the mood around Kingspan Stadium these days doesn't require much of a background in analysing human behaviour; the natives are restless, perhaps more so than any time in the last 10 years.

A campaign that began in a disastrous fashion - with the hugely unpopular revelation that local hero Ruan Pienaar would be making an IRFU-enforced exit come June - had lurched from one setback to another before reaching something of a crisis point against Exeter, when a side with virtually nothing to play for bar pride ended any realistic hopes of Ulster making a return to the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Despite solidarity between the four provinces, seeing Munster and Leinster already in the last eight, and Connacht knocking on the door, has not helped the perception among the fanbase of a team in reverse. And indeed it extends further than that with criticism from ex-players increasing, it seems, week by week.

There is a reason that three different broadcasters want Stephen Ferris on pundit duty when they have Ulster on their screens - one of the province's undoubted stars of the professional era taps into the frustration of his partisan viewers.

While still close enough to the squad to call many of them friends, he is blunt in his assessment, and, after the recent capitulation to Leinster in the RDS, his attention-grabbing sentiments will have echoed what was being said on the terraces of Dublin and in the living rooms of his home province.

His old team-mate Neil Best went one further, becoming the first prominent figure supporting a premature 'Kiss Out' brigade.

When the former flanker said Ulster were going backwards under their Australian Director of Rugby, he gave a public voice to what had hitherto been confined to the realm of social media and message boards.

Patience is in more plentiful supply in this sport than many others and, after waiting 17 months for Kiss to arrive, Ulster and the IRFU are hardly about to send a man - especially one who has impressed at varying stops throughout his career and boasts plenty of high-profile references - on his way just as swiftly.

While "when everyone is fit" remains the most redundant phrase in rugby, help is on the way with the expected return of Pienaar and the debut of big-name import Marcell Coetzee in time for the side's next league fixture.

Hanging on for reinforcements from the treatment room can have the feel of waiting for Godot given the attritional nature of the game, but those two would add value to any PRO12 side and boost hopes that a winning run against upcoming inferior opposition could soon improve the outlook.

However what those still looking for yet another clear out and fresh start - and one only has to look towards Connacht and their improbable silverware last season to see the value of allowing a coach the necessary time to transform an organisation in his image - ignore is that this is a side that all too often during their time as Irish Rugby's nearly men have been surrounded by a feeling of 'wait until next year'.

With the arrivals of Arno Botha and John Cooney, exclusively reported here last week, and a mooted upheaval of the coaching ticket beneath Kiss, of course there are some already hankering for September and a clean slate.

Players, however, get so few chances to make a little history for their province.

The likes of Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe will all be too aware that they don't have an infinite amount of time left to break Ulster's now 11-year wait for a trophy. In the case of the deserving Pienaar, his opportunity comes in an ever smaller window.

They, as much as any, will stress that this campaign is not yet devoid of hope; the talk that it is time to clean house and build for next season will gain short shrift from them.

In 2017, however, we live in a world of hot-takes and instant reaction.

Like many rugby clubhouses throughout the country, Ulster players are well versed on the ins and outs of the NFL occurring across the Atlantic.

And while little will have soothed the pain of Sunday's chastening defeat, fans of the Green Bay Packers in the squad such as Stuart McCloskey and Best will have at least raised a smile to see The Cheeseheads' superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers lead his side to within one game of the Super Bowl later that evening.

Back in November, the storied franchise were stuck in a similar funk to Ulster.

While Kiss' men suffered a meek embarrassment in Edinburgh, the Packers were offering up a comparable surrender to the Indianapolis Colts in their Lambeau Field home.

If Ulster think they have been unduly criticised this season, spare a thought for coach Mike McCarthy on the Packers sideline who, with a Championship already on his CV, faced daily questions about his job security.

But things can change quickly in sport and after two more defeats, with a record reading won four and lost six, Rodgers uttered a now famous assertion that Green Bay would "run the table" and win all their remaining games.

Just as this piece of California confidence spurred his team to within touching distance of another title, Ulster's own leaders must step up and do the same.

This is a flawed side but one with too much talent to be sixth in the PRO12, and with far too much going for it in terms of infrastructure to be looking nervously over their shoulder when it comes to 2017-18 Champions Cup qualification.

It is still, though, a team that has mystifyingly underperformed on far too many occasions in recent months.

Just as Exeter did last weekend, the senior players must lead the way to a statement of intent against Bordeaux-Begles on Saturday in what will otherwise be an almost meaningless game.

Then comes a run when the only option is to beat teams they should be defeating during the Six Nations window.

Ulster's season can still be saved. But with no margin for error left, and goodwill rapidly diminishing, it needs to happen now with Sunday being a turning point.

If not, then and only then will answers really be needed.

Belfast Telegraph


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