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Ulster need serious answers ahead of Pro14 run-in, admits Gibbes


Mistake: Stuart McCloskey knocks on against the Scarlets
Mistake: Stuart McCloskey knocks on against the Scarlets

By Michael Sadlier

Just five regulation season games to go now and there is no sense that Ulster have seen off the worst of a season already deeply scarred by crisis.

Saturday's second-half collapse at Scarlets registered as yet another low point in a campaign which has already accumulated an extensive collection of them.

While the attention has been focused on Ulster's need to catch Edinburgh, not to only make the Guinness PRO14 knockout stages but also to ensure Champions Cup rugby for next season without having to rely on a play-off, there is also a troubling issue in Jono Gibbes' rear-view mirror.

While Ulster now trail third-placed Edinburgh by five in Conference B, the fact is that Benetton are now just seven behind the province with an arguably much more favourable run-in than the one facing Gibbes and co.

While Connacht's revival to beat Benetton 22-19 on Saturday was a hugely positive outcome for Ulster - and halted a five-game winning run for the Italians - the Kingspan Stadium side are far from secure when it comes to keeping control of fourth and avoiding the humiliation of missing out entirely on the Champions Cup should they end up in fifth.

As Gibbes admitted, Ulster have three away games in their final five fixtures and a dreadful record outside the Kingspan this season - three wins in 10 from all competitions - makes halting Conference A leaders Glasgow all the more vital come Friday in the last outing of this four-game segment before the break.

Ulster then return with a nasty-looking trip to Cardiff Blues and an even more challenging visit to Edinburgh before meeting the Ospreys at home and finishing up at Munster.

Two of Benetton's remaining games are at home to the lowly Dragons and Zebre, while they ought to also bag a useful result from their journey to the woeful Southern Kings.

So, though it's all systems go to try and catch Richard Cockerill's Edinburgh, there is a growing concern that wins will primarily be needed just to keep Benetton at bay.

"It doesn't get any easier," said Gibbes after his third game in charge, and second straight defeat, since Les Kiss departed.

And with Glasgow coming off the back of a defeat at Munster - and heavily hit by Scotland call-ups which may still be the case come Friday - there is just no wriggle room for Ulster.

"It's well known that the run-in we have has three away games," said Gibbes. "I think that's a serious situation and we need to get some serious answers pretty quickly. We need to ascertain what it is that works for us and try and work really hard on some of the deficiencies that clearly still exist and got exposed in that second 40 on Saturday."

It was fairly obvious that Ulster were struggling from the moment John Cooney put an early second-half kick out on the full.

The errors kept coming as the Scarlets upped their intensity.

"We have to try and find some solutions pretty quickly," said Gibbes with a view to taming Glasgow.

"We have to address what's going on with that second-half stuff."

As for fit personnel, the head coach confessed that the side had shipped a few injuries and, though he wasn't for naming names, the sight of both Jean Deysel and Wiehahn Herbst departing with possible issues will not have helped the cause.

"We have to try and assess a few injuries and we haven't got a whole lot of reinforcements to come back. We've now to get the best 23 and mix for us for Friday night," stated Gibbes.

Belfast Telegraph


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