Ulster players have the passion and are doing their best, insists coach
Ulster skills coach and video analyst Niall Malone has rejected claims the side no longer have passion for the jersey.
In the middle of a tumultuous campaign, Director of Rugby Les Kiss has already departed Kingspan Stadium mid-season and left Jono Gibbes in charge, but the move has done little to alter the province's fortunes.
They were resoundingly beaten 34-10 by Scarlets last week, despite leading 7-3 at the break, coming off the back of a loss to Edinburgh at home a week prior.
With bonus points, both losing and four-try, proving hard to come by too, Ulster are on course to average under three points a game for the first time since 2012, a year they sacrificed league form to focus on their run to the Heineken Cup final.
Currently fourth out of seven teams in their Guinness PRO14 conference, to miss out on the top-three and the play-offs would render this year a failure. To miss out on the Champions Cup, however, would be a catastrophe.
Their current place in the standings would yield only a play-off with the fourth best eligible side in the opposite conference, while even that will require another result or two to secure.
Benetton are only seven points behind in fifth, but still have the Southern Kings, Dragons and Zebre - the three worst sides in the competition - to play over the final five rounds of action.
"The current run, I don't think it is to do with passion," said Malone. "There are various things going on off-field in Ulster at the minute. You try not to make it a distraction, but it is always there.
"In the past, I think (lack of) passion was the number one criticism, but I don't think it is any more and I think Jono's main strength is bringing that out in people.
"What I would say is that at times before, it was a valid criticism. Six months ago when that criticism (was made), I would see it myself and Rory Best said it after one of the big high-profile games we lost, it was getting very deflating.
"Against Edinburgh we made 229 tackles, which is about 100 more than we normally make. But because we lost, people can say whatever.
"But against a good Edinburgh team we fronted up and I thought we were passionate.
"Second half against Scarlets, there were problems but they were technical problems rather than passion. The boys were exhausted after that game, as they were against Edinburgh before it. They are trying their best and I don't think it is fair to say they don't have the passion. They are doing their best."
Ulster will at least have Charles Piutau back when they welcome Glasgow Warriors to Kingspan Stadium on Friday night (7.35pm kick-off).
The former All Black, who will move to Bristol this summer, has missed the last two games with a rib injury but has been passed fit to make a return.
Fellow back-three man Craig Gilroy, who has also been dealing with a rib complaint, will not be back in action until the away game to Cardiff next time out, as will Sean Reidy.
Jean Deysel is rated as only 50/50 for Glasgow this week after shipping an injury to his shoulder against Scarlets.
"One of the assets of having the foreign players is that you get to use them during the Six Nations," added Malone.
"Unfortunately a few of ours are injured now at the moment so we are not getting the use of them.
"But we do need Jean."