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October brings fresh start for Ulster but focus set on derby clash rather than Europe

Jono Gibbes’ side face Connacht on Friday night.

Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes.
Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes.
Image: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

THEY SAY THAT the real rugby only begins in October.

It’s when the European matches finally roll around. All four provinces have two interpros to look forward to. The big names are all back from their enforced rests and ready to battle it out over four intense weeks.

But for Jono Gibbes and Ulster it represents a fresh start.

Off the back of what can only be described as a catastrophic 27-23 defeat away to Zebre last weekend, the aura surrounding Ireland’s northern province has soured immensely after their four wins to start the season.

That Ulster were so poor in Italy begs the question as to what exactly changed between the mauling of the Dragons and Saturday’s whimpering loss. On the face of it, 12 changes to the starting line-up suggests badly-timed rotation. Realistically, all 12 changes made that Ulster line-up stronger.

Instead the coaching staff point to another damning statistic: 47 errors, composed of 25 turnovers and a staggering 22 missed tackles.

Against any team that’s going to cause you problems, and Gibbes didn’t hold back in his scathing assessment of what went wrong.

“I think it was the error rate was way too high with the ball,” was the judgement. “We didn’t 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.

“It’s hard to say Plan A didn’t work because we never executed Plan A.

“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.”

In terms of improvements, something the fans have been crying out for since the final whistle in Parma, Gibbes is confident that the answers aren’t going to be too hard to find.

“All we can do is make sure our preparation is as good as it can be,” he says. “We don’t need to go in search of radical solutions. When we examined it and looked through stuff, we could see what we had been doing pretty well up until that point we did not do it.

“All we can do is work hard each week to make sure that we are improving, we have got those in place, collectively we are clear on what we are trying to do and turn up with the right amount of attitude and spirit to implement that.”

Jono Gibbs The focus is on Connacht for Gibbes and Ulster. Source: Darren Kidd/INPHO

That the former Leinster coach immediately turns his focus to Connacht on Friday night says all you need to know about whether Ulster are dwelling on last week or not.

Of course, they will be taking all the lessons from a humbling defeat, but Gibbes certainly emphasises that with a shortened week — Ulster have only two training sessions this week — they can’t afford to take their eye off the ball.

In the same vein, neither are Ulster putting any stock in the oft repeated fact that Connacht haven’t won in Belfast since 1960, and haven’t looked overly close to doing so in the professional era.

It’s a game that Ulster will be expecting to win, and the fans will be anticipating a big bounce back performance, even if Gibbes is wary of a Connacht side who have started with just one win from their opening five.

“I think (Connacht) had their best performance against Scarlets,” Gibbes says. “Defensively they were hungry and took them all the way to the wire away from home.

“They will be building towards a big one come Friday so we have been pretty thorough with the Zebre stuff and we have had to quickly move to being clear to what we have to do against Connacht because it is a big challenge.

“It’s Connacht, they always keep you honest, you have got to be really physically ready.”

With Europe just around the corner — Ulster welcome Wasps to Kingspan Stadium next Friday — there’s an anticipation that as well as being a heated interpro, this Friday’s game is a dress rehearsal for that opening pool game.

Not for the coaches. That can wait.

“We have Connacht on Friday to get right first,” Gibbes retorts when asked about the Champions’ Cup. “Kissy went to Dublin (on Monday) to talk about Europe and that’s a whole way away.

“We have Friday to get right and that’s what’s in front of us. We have to make sure we get our preparations right, we can’t afford to have an eye around the corner.

“If we feel we’re in the position to have an eye on Europe then we’re going to get caught with our pants down on Friday. So I’m not going to talk about Europe, personally.”

And in terms of getting some consistency in team selection, Gibbes gives a similar response, “I just want to get some consistency for Friday first to be honest.”

Wasps can wait. Connacht are going to get the Ulster backlash first.

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Adam McKendry

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