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Under-fire Ulster must win to turn around their season

 

By Michael Sadlier

If you took in both inter-provincial derbies played either side of Christmas, and weren't particularly partisan about who took the spoils, then there would be few complaints about the number of tries scored in Galway and Limerick.

In all, 16 touchdowns came along and were divided, rather neatly, right down the middle, with the eight occurring in each game merely heightening the entertainment value.

Mind you, on closer examination, there is a lop-sidedness to all this free scoring as, while Munster and Leinster got four tries each on Boxing Day, the scoring wasn't so evenly distributed last Saturday night at the Sportsground where Connacht got six against Ulster's two.

Yes, it's back to that Ulster shaky defensive structure again which will be coming under much scrutiny come New Year's Day when Munster travel to Kingspan Stadium, also on the back of a defeat but with more than likely a diluted side, for a game where all the pressure to perform and deliver is now very much on the hosts.

Indeed, the situation in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 is now less than comfortable for Ulster as, with both Leinster and the Scarlets winning, Les Kiss's side are nine points behind the west Wales team - who top the table - and seven off Leinster, while there is no safety in being third in a play-off spot as Edinburgh are just three behind.

Though the 44-16 thumping at Connacht certainly wasn't the first time Ulster have ended up conceding an alarming number of tries this season, it did mark a new low in that their leaky defence had not been breached six times in this competitive campaign until the western province's record win, while the five scores both the Dragons and Southern Kings have managed still didn't end up as defeats for Kiss's squad.

The problem isn't confined to one obvious area of weakness either and has seen them surrender scores out wide and through direct plays, whether pick-ups and breaks through or around the bases of rucks or via an admittedly hard to halt trundling lineout maul.

The softness out wide came to mind after Jordan Larmour managed what must be a mighty contender for try of the season at Thomond Park on Boxing Day.

The Leinster youngster scored a sensational solo effort to take the game well out of reach for Munster despite their worthy efforts at a comeback.

We're also familiar with Larmour around these parts too.

Back in October he torched Ulster out wide, stepping Iain Henderson as if he wasn't there and then blasting Aaron Cairns for pace to score a stunning try as Kiss's side fell to their second successive defeat - their third overall at that stage - with talk of a crisis seemingly about to engulf them.

Instead, they steadied the ship and ran off five games without losing - four wins and a draw - before Connacht did to them what had already, leaving their wins over Harlequins aside, seemed as if it might be coming anyway by simply running Ulster ragged by playing with an accuracy and pace which they couldn't live with.

And the ultimate humiliation in Galway arrived when, with only 14 men and the game well and truly safe, Connacht ran the length of the field for lock Ultan Dillane to nail his second of the night.

So what can be done? And, in truth, it wasn't just Ulster's tackling that was dire last weekend. It was practically everything else too.

Their non-reception of restarts did them untold damage, as did their splintering maul defence which had looked so sound against Harlequins at the Stoop, their handling and, of course, the highly visible struggles at the scrum.

But it's the defence which has left the deepest scars.

It's worth noting that while both Ulster and Munster have each scored 14 tries in their last four games, the southern province's line has been breached eight times while Kiss has seen his players surrender a whopping 16 touchdowns over the same timeframe.

"It's been something we've been trying to work on," said Kiss, whose area of expertise happens to be defence.

"It's not something simple that we can put our hand on, it's not like we're not good in defence, it's just, at times, teams open us up. We've got to work harder to fix that up," added Ulster's Director of Rugby, who badly needs to register a 'W' alongside this fixture list come the first day of 2018.

"It's about getting those first-up hits into a good position and dominating that area and giving ourselves a chance to launch our defence again and on better terms.

"And we're not getting to do that at the moment and that's putting us under a lot of pressure," he added.

It is worth noting that Jared Payne's continuing absence as a defensive organiser in midfield has certainly not helped, nor has the chopping and changing of the combinations this season.

"Yes, we have changed a lot," admitted skills coach Niall Malone of the altering centre partnerships.

"It's the nature of the sport nowadays. If you pick the same pairings, often they would get tired and fatigued and pick up injuries, so that doesn't really work either.

"So you just have to deal with it."

And as for Payne not being around at all, Malone highlighted that his defensive organisational skills are just as good as what he does with the ball in hand.

"To me it's what he does by his vocal skill," said Malone.

"You wouldn't really notice it, but the players notice it and it (his absence) does leave a bit of a vacuum, there's no doubt about it.

"When he plays the team is more solid. He's such a good player and you see it with Ireland as well.

"We've missed him, but we've other good players and we have highlighted the mistakes (we are making)."

Those mistakes are threatening to derail Ulster's season early doors as there is no guarantee they will simply outscore opponents.

It's time for a very quick fix.

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