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Ulster must use rivals' success as spur: Gibbes

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With a weekend of high-quality European rugby leaving the tantalising possibility of an all-Irish Champions Cup final lingering in the air, there was very much a feel of being the poor relation in the northern province this Easter.

Given how quickly things have unravelled in the months since, it was easy to forget that Ulster went into their final pool game with a chance of hosting a quarter-final of their own last week. Their limp defeat to Wasps in the miserable rain of the Ricoh Arena at the end of January put paid to any such notions and left them watching on last weekend.

That defeat was the last game for Director of Rugby Les Kiss but his departure hasn't led to an upturn in fortunes. The side have dropped three of four since, beating only Southern Kings, who are the worst team in the PRO14.

The contrast to their near neighbours is stark. While Leinster and Munster may well meet each other for Europe's top prize in Bilbao on May 12, long before then Ulster have a real battle just to ensure they're taking part in the competition next year.

"Absolutely, we were envious," said head coach Jono Gibbes of watching Leinster and Munster while his own side were idle. "It was high-level, quality stuff. We have got to be inspired but also we have to use that.

"It is great watching rugby like that, but I would much rather be in the stand involved with Ulster than watching it on a couch. I think guys are going to be hurting after watching a weekend of quality rugby like that and hopefully be inspired to get there and play in the knockout stuff."

Despite winning the European Cup in 1999, Ulster's own history in the competition isn't quite as illustrious as that of Leinster and Munster but, 20 years on from their only triumph, failure to qualify for the competition, regardless of their neighbours' success, would be nothing short of a disaster.

But ahead of Friday evening's trip to Edinburgh (7.35pm kick-off), Ulster know that should they lose, their hopes of automatic qualification will be over. While such an eventuality would have been seen as the worst-case scenario before this season began, things could yet get worse.

Benetton are coming up on the rails, just one point behind Ulster, and could yet overhaul them to claim a place in the PRO14's Champions Cup play-off game. If that happens, Ulster's season will be over by the end of this month and signal a campaign in the Challenge Cup.

"It's pretty obvious what the situation is and the realities around performances and results have put us in this situation," said Gibbes. "It's difficult not to be in complete control, but what can we control? We can control our enthusiasm, our mentality and our preparation for Edinburgh.

"The coaches, we can help with that with some clear planning and selection as well. As we sort of reflected on after losing to Cardiff, (we needed to improve) some coaching, some selection and some players' efforts. We'll be mixing those three things up to get some good energy for Friday night."

The province's three-game losing slide began with a reverse to Edinburgh in the middle of February, with Gibbes admitting that to face the same opposition again is something of an unusual circumstance.

"Looking at the good side of it, there has not been a massive run of games to scout them on and they possibly have not had a lot of good stuff to scout on us. They are probably a bit confused about what we are trying to do if they have watched us (recently)," he said.

"The positive is you do not have to do a whole heap of scouting stuff but the challenge is that they know what worked and they have had a good run of games and have been successful for a good run of games so there will be a massive confidence in that for them.

"Conversely for us, we have lost a last-minute game and then had two poor performances away, so the balance of confidence would be in their camp.

"Whether we had won last week or whatever, you prepare each week and it is a whole new game and we have got to do the best we can."

Ulster will have flanker Sean Reidy fit to play a part in the game, while captain Rory Best is in line to make his return to Ulster colours for the first time since leading an Irish Grand Slam in the Six Nations.

It will be only the hooker's seventh game for the province this season.

"He's got right back in front of it," added Gibbes. "He's got the guys focused straight away."

  • Edinburgh v Ulster, Guinness PRO14 Championship: BT Murrayfield, Friday, 7.35pm

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