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Ulster have to regain our focus or pay the price, says Gibbes

Ulster v Connacht, Guinness PRO14 Championship, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm

By Jonathan Bradley

In no mood to sugarcoat the shock loss to Zebre last time out, Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes was in frank form yesterday as he said his side risk getting "caught with their pants down" if they take their eye off the ball against Connacht this weekend.

The Westerners come to Kingspan Stadium for the season's first inter-pro on Friday night (7.35pm kick-off) having not won in Belfast since November 1960 and with the hosts needing to produce a response after losing their unbeaten record in the most surprising of locations only a matter of days ago.

Having arrived from Clermont this summer, players have already spoken of Gibbes' no-nonsense approach, and it's a streak he carried into yesterday's media debrief of the failed trip to Parma.

"The error rate was way too high with the ball," started Gibbes bluntly. "We did not build enough pressure on them. Every time we seemed to put something together it ended in a turnover and the pressure was released. That was frustrating, (as was) watching Zebre be really positive with the ball and us reacting slowly.

"Our defence became passive, we were watching a bit.

"There were things Zebre did well but lots of things that we had done well in the first period of the season that we did not execute."

When given the opportunity to cite mitigating factors - Ulster were forced to skip the usual captain's run at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi after their plane was re-routed via Antwerp - the man who worked with Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt and Matt O'Connor while at Leinster was not for biting.

"I don't think dropping the ball has anything to do with an aeroplane," Gibbes said, seeming slightly puzzled.

"I would love to take that excuse but I can't even say we were flat physically or anything like that because we simply did not execute basic things.

"We had no rhythm, we got no continuity, we did not put them under any pressure and we lost control of the game.

"In the second half there were plenty of opportunities to build scoreboard pressure and we did not take them.

"Absolutely, I think performances are a reflection of preparation but that is (down to) coaches as well. The sessions were specific enough to what we were going to deal with at Zebre.

"Were the sessions hard enough? We'll reflect on that."

With Director of Rugby Les Kiss on duty at the Champions Cup launch this week, Gibbes was spared hearing talk of how these derbies were a "stepping stone" or "training" for the upcoming start of European competition, but it would seem the 40-year-old is one man who has given little thought to the visit from Wasps next week.

"I don't know if you know but we lost in Zebre on Saturday," he said when questioned if this week's team selection would reflect the looming challenge.

"We have Connacht on Friday to get right first. Kissy went to Dublin (on Monday) to talk about Europe but that's a whole way away.

"We have Friday to get right and that's what's in front of us.

"We have to make sure we get our preparations right, we can't afford to have an eye around the corner.

"If we feel we're in the position to have an eye on Europe then we're going to get caught with our pants down on Friday so I'm not going to talk about Europe."

With the team named for Connacht tomorrow, Louis Ludik is expected to be included despite taking a blow to the throat against Zebre, but the province continue to wait on one of their leading lights, Jared Payne.

The Irish international has not played since withdrawing from the British and Irish Lions side to face the Hurricanes back in June, and has been suffering from cervicogenic headaches.

"JP's injury is one of those that isn't an easy thing to work through, it is what it is with him," added Gibbes. "We'd love to add quality like that as quickly as we could but it's week to week management with him.

"He participated in (yesterday's) session, so we've just monitored that to see what his reaction was and how he goes. We're probably erring on the side of caution a lot with him."

Springbok flanker Marcell Coetzee will see a knee specialist today having been limited to just one game this season.

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