Ulster are still a little bit in shock after their defeat against Zebre last Saturday, which saw them knocked off their leadership perch, so they will need to knuckle down before an improving Connacht outfit come to Belfast in the first of the Guinness PRO14 Conference Irish derby clashes on Friday evening.
Ulster will again be without Springbok Marcell Coetzee, whose career as a rampaging No 8 is in serious doubt, while Ireland’s Jared Payne, who has not played since the Lions tour to New Zealand due to a nerve injury in his neck, is also extremely doubtful.
Head coach Jono Gibbes, however, was in no doubt that individual and unit skills were mostly to blame for the 27-23 defeat in Italy, where Ulster were lucky to salvage a losing bonus point at the death. Gibbes knows that Ulster will need to produce their top game against Connacht.
“It’s a derby game, so it should sharpen our focus. Connacht, I think they had their best performance against Scarlets,” said the former All Black lock. “Defensively, they were hungry. We have seen, from first-hand, Scarlets’ quality, but Connacht took them all the way to the wire, away from home.
“They will take confidence from that. They will be building towards what they see as a big one come Friday, so we have been pretty thorough with the Zebre stuff. We have to quickly move to being clear to what we have to do against Connacht, because it is a big challenge.
“Connacht always keep you honest. You have got to be really physically-ready. Where they are building to; I think they have played Glasgow and Cardiff in pretty horrific conditions and then they have better conditions in Llanelli and I thought they showed a helluva lot more than they had in those previous two games,” said Gibbes, who was fairly predictable in assessing Ulster’s failures last week, as they had 22 turnovers.
“The error rate was way too high. With missed tackles and dropped ball, in particular. We just did not build enough pressure on them. Every time we seemed to put something together, it ended in a turnover, and the pressure was released on them. That was frustrating, but it was a bit frustrating watching Zebre be really positive with the ball and then us slow to react to that and our defence, I thought, became too passive. We were watching a bit, so it was frustrating, yeah, it was a difficult day, but there are things that Zebre did well, things we have done well in the first period of the season that we did not execute and we were second-best in a lot of areas.”
Gibbes was asked about the apparent lack of leadership in the side; when Plan A failed there appeared to be no Plan B.
“Yeah, it is hard to say Plan A did not work, because we never executed Plan A,” laughed Gibbes. “I think it is a fair comment, it is a fair observation. What we needed, what we perhaps lacked a little bit in terms of response on the field on Saturday, was perhaps the individual stepping up and executing their role a little better. I think we have identified how we can do that better for Friday, but consequences were pretty obvious when we do not do it. We [as coaches] are not asking for things that they have not delivered before, we are not asking them to do things they have not done well already. It’s not the number of caps or experience or whatever it is, it is just some basic stuff we are trying to do.”
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