Ulster must learn from the worst loss of my reign: Kiss
Ulster's Director of Rugby Les Kiss had little reason for cheer this Christmas after his men were bullied by their near neighbours Connacht on Saturday, losing by a record scoreline of 44-16.
Never before in the long history of games between these Irish rivals had the western side racked up such a points tally or winning margin, but Kieran Keane's men were good value for every one of the 28 points separating the sides.
Indeed, it could - and arguably should - have been worse for the visitors who actually looked better when their untested youngsters, such as Adam McBurney and Johnny McPhillips, were introduced to proceedings long after the result was already beyond doubt.
Beleaguered Kiss, who has already found patience wearing thin, admitted afterwards that it was the most abject performance of his two-and-a-half-year tenure.
"That's the worst, yeah," he said succinctly. "They came at us and we've got to cop that on the chin. We've got a week and a half to recalibrate against Munster and make sure we deliver something a bit better.
"We'll go through the process and make sure we get the right lessons from it."
While the line-up was far from the strongest Ulster will field this season - and, indeed, when all is said and done Kiss may wonder what might have been if he'd had better luck on the injury front over the past two years - the manner of the defeat was once again the most concerning element.
Despite the side's protestations to the contrary last month, this was a result that had felt like it was in the pipeline for quite some time.
La Rochelle and Leinster beat them without needing to hit top gear in back-to-back games in October, but the team prior to last weekend had managed to go five games unbeaten.
The performances against Kings, Treviso and Dragons, though, made what belatedly happened in Galway seem inevitable. Highlighting the points yield from those games against the league's lesser lights always felt like tissue paper being placed over gaping cracks.
A hammering was coming, and as soon as the opposition were of a higher quality it duly arrived.
For Darren Cave joining the 200 cap club, he followed in the footsteps of Roger Wilson, Andrew Trimble, Rory Best and Robbie Diack in suffering a loss on the red letter day.
The centre left little doubt as to how he felt about the Ulster showing.
"The bottom line is that we produced a performance that wasn't worthy of the shirt and we got exactly what we deserved," he said. "It was very frustrating and we didn't stick to our plan. At the start of the game we gave Connacht a lead and they're too good a team to give a 12-point start, especially when we were playing with the wind. That's the frustrating thing from our point of view.
"We weren't good enough and fair play to Connacht, they were much better than us and deserved to win.
"I thought we had a good plan but we didn't execute it and hopefully we'll have a good plan for next week and the players will execute it better and we put Munster under more pressure.
"We made it easy for them at times but fair play to them, they were a better team on the night."
Where the season goes from here will likely be decided over the next four weeks.
With a response required when Ulster are back in action, the stakes will be high against Munster on New Year's Day.
It was not so long ago that the southern province couldn't win a game in Belfast for love nor money, but they haven't lost at Kingspan Stadium since the early days of 2014. And with Leinster to come in the RDS, never a fixture that Ulster look forward to with any zeal, before their Champions Cup fate is decided one way or another, by the end of January Saturday's loss could either feel like a footnote or the beginning of the end.
With Kiss sure to be feeling that it never rains but pours, results elsewhere hardly helped alleviate the pressure.
Before the game kicked off in Galway, Edinburgh were already breathing down their necks after securing a late win over Glasgow.
The 2015 champions hadn't lost a league game coming into the first of three 1872 Cup clashes this season, but it was Richard Cockerill's men who secured the local bragging rights thanks to a last-minute Nathan Fowles try.
The men from the Scottish capital are now just three points behind Ulster, and the sides meet twice in the second half of the season.
Some huge games to come. For Kiss, they'll feel the most important of his tenure.
Connacht: T O'Halloran, N Adeolokun, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion; D Coulson, S Delahunt, F Bealham, U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: T McCartney (for Delahunt, 57), P McCabe (for Coulsen, 57), C Carey (for Bealham, 56), J Cannon (for Roux, 56), N Dawai (for Butler, 62), J Mitchell (for Marmion, 62), E Griffin (for Aki, 64), D Leader (for Adeolokun, 64).
Ulster: J Stockdale; C Gilroy, L Ludik, D Cave, A Trimble; P Nelson, J Cooney; A Warwick, J Andrew, W Herbst; I Henderson (capt), R Diack; C Ross, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: A McBurney (for Andrew, 46), S van der Merwe (for Ross, 49), R Kane (for Herbst, 49), M Rea (for Diack, 65), G Jones (for Reidy, 36), P Marshall (for Cooney, 62), J McPhillips (for Nelson, 65), R Lyttle (for Trimble, 52).
Man of the match: U Dillane.
Referee: M Adamson