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Ulster Rugby had no luck on European trail, insists Gary Longwell


Painful exit: Luke Marshall, Callum Black and Ruan Pienaar trudge off the pitch after the defeat to Scarlets in Wales

Painful exit: Luke Marshall, Callum Black and Ruan Pienaar trudge off the pitch after the defeat to Scarlets in Wales

Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

Painful exit: Luke Marshall, Callum Black and Ruan Pienaar trudge off the pitch after the defeat to Scarlets in Wales

Gary Longwell, one of the key figures in Ulster's solitary Heineken Cup victory, believes that the stars just did not align for the province the way they did for him and his team-mates back in 1999.

Defeat to Scarlets in Llanelli on Sunday evening effectively, if not mathematically, ended the European campaign for Neil Doak's men with two games still left to play.

While the dispiriting defeat in west Wales was the final nail in the coffin, two defeats in the opening pool games to Leicester and Toulon had already made a fifth successive place in the quarter-finals unlikely.

A bonus-point win over Wayne Pivac's men at the Kingspan Stadium two weeks ago offered a brief glimmer of hope but Longwell believes that the injury nightmare endured by Doak in the opening months of his tenure as head coach had left his former team-mate with a mountain to climb.

While captain Mark McCall missed the final victory over Colomiers, and Andy Ward required running repairs to his knee throughout, Ulster were largely able to keep their squad intact during their triumphant campaign 16 years ago, but they have been nowhere near as fortunate this time around.

Longwell commented: "In this competition, you can maybe compete with one or two injuries but just not the amount that Ulster have had to deal with this season.

"If you look at Andy Trimble, he's been in sensational form this year, to lose him alone would be bad enough but then you add in the rest.

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"Iain Henderson would make a big difference and Chris Henry has been a real stand-out for Ulster over the last few years. They've both been big misses.

"Throw Jared Payne and Paddy Jackson into that mix and you can see you're going to have a problem.

"Then (Ruan) Pienaar and (Dan) Tuohy didn't play in the first two games and had to come back in difficult circumstances, making the step up to Europe straight away."

For Longwell, the absentees made a difficult task virtually impossible given the formidable nature of Ulster's pool.

"Ulster Rugby has been building year on year over the last four or five seasons but we've maybe had easier draws than we were given this year," he said. "Toulon are the stand-out team in Europe at the minute, they've won it twice in a row, so it's tough enough with a full deck and then you've got a Leicester side who are always going to be strong too.

"It's probably time to focus on the PRO12 but there's three big games coming up (Ospreys away, Connacht at home, Leinster away) so the players will need to get straight back into it."

Longwell, who now works at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland as well as coaching Randalstown RFC, left his position at the Ulster Academy in the summer of 2013 but is sure that his former colleagues are the men to lead the province.

"I've worked with Neil Doak, Johnny Bell and Niall Malone for a lot of years and they've all got good rugby brains," said the 26-times capped Irish international.

"I know the players are right behind them and you can see the support that they have in the squad.

"There's no doubt that they're up to it and they'll develop in the roles.

"When the injured guys come back in, and the young players who are getting more game time mature that bit more, I'd be confident that 2015 can be a really good year for Ulster.

"This isn't a time to panic, it's a time to regroup."

Belfast Telegraph