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'We haven't cracked it, we don't know what it is': Ulster ready to work their way out of a rut

‘We’re gonna work their b*****ks off’, says Les Kiss while other teams are preparing for the tail end of the season.

ANDREW TRIMBLE IS sick of it.

Andrew Trimble takes to the pitch Source: CameraSport/Simon King/INPHO

Sick of having to agree with the critics. Sick of counting the 11 years since Ulster got their hands on a trophy. Sick of missing out when the chips are down. Sick of ruing missed opportunities and sick of walking into team meetings knowing that stern, frustrated words are coming from a team-mate.

The Ulster co-captain will lead his team for the last time this season on Saturday, and he will walk out at Kingspan Stadium knowing there is nothing tangible on the line for his team to play for. It’s seven years since Ulster got to May without a big game to build towards – their last time out of the Pro12′s top four coming along with the run to the 2012 Heineken Cup final. Pride will have to do.

It’s pride that fuels the teeth-grinding frustration in Trimble as he sits down to rake over a dispiriting season for a Kingspan event in Dublin yesterday.

“It’s hard to get away from it. Every Monday morning someone puts their hand up and says: ‘lads, this is what’s going on…’ it ends up being a little more long-winded than someone intended and it’s a little bit emotional, a little bit passionate, a little bit of something.

“Until you snap out of it, until you get some results, it’s a tough place to go on a Monday morning. Looking at a review saying we’ve done this wrong, that wrong. There’s a lot of soul searching.

“(On the whole), I don’t think it’s all bad performances, there’s a lot of goodness. But bad result after bad result week after week just gets you down. You start thinking: ‘what are we gonna do now?’ Do you have to change something?”

These are the questions Trimble and Ulster have been wrestling with. Their conclusions are that they have created more than enough scoring opportunities to make the difference. So executing and converting on those openings is the focus for the squad in its current guise.

“Our execution has been nowhere near what’s required. You get away with it when you play some of the teams further down the league because you’ve more opportunities. But against Ospreys, Leinster, Munster and Cardiff there a few weeks ago we just didn’t take the opportunities that came our  way. It’s been a bit typical week after week, and every week we’ve been trying to keep faith. Keep going ‘we can do this, we can break this.’ But it’s hard to have that confidence or momentum when there’s nothing there to build from.

You’d like to think that when it does click it will click and it will become a lot easier with that momentum on your side. But for us at the minute it’s very difficult.”

The more generous Ulster fan might even say Trimble is being too harsh. They will finish fifth after round 22 is completed on Saturday, and clawed their way into play-off contention thanks to six straight wins since the Six Nations started. The trouble is, three of those games were against Italian opposition and the return of full-strength teams in the tournament has worked against them.

Still, untimely injuries to the likes of Marcel Coetzee, Jared Payne and Stu McCloskey haven’t helped. Just a bad run of luck. Right, Andrew?

“If it happened for one season, two seasons, potentially three, you could say we’ve been unlucky. But if you’re unlucky consistently it gets to the point where you can’t keep saying that,” argues the province’s record try-scorer.

“Bounces of the ball, referees decisions, not having everyone available… people get tired of listening to that. People just don’t believe that after a few years. You can say you’re unlucky, but when it continues, you’ve got to look at yourselves. You have to be honest and say: ‘something that we’re doing is missing.’”

Andrew Trimble Andrew Trimble was speaking at a Kingspan media event in Dublin ahead of Saturday’s match against Leinster in Kingspan Stadium. Kingspan delivers high efficiency, low cost, low carbon building solutions and is the naming rights partner and front of jersey sponsor of Ulster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Director of rugby Les Kiss isn’t counting on the universe to send luck his way either.

“I sat down with a group of key players yesterday,” says the Australian, “we’re up for the challenge to get to a point where you can mitigate the things that happen.

“A bad call  might go against you or an injury, you’ve got to be good enough as a team to work through that and around it.

“We can bleat here about bits of luck. yeah sure, but every team has them and we’ve got to be better than the bad luck. You make that yourself and you’ve got to have a culture where we agree we need to step it up. And we will.”

There’s a change of tack coming. Even before Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel come in to take charge under Kiss. The director is determined to put the unwanted free weeks ahead to good use. Rather than let his squad slunk off in their flip-flops, he has a workload in mind before an end-of-season fixture in Kingspan Stadium on 1 June.

We have a few weeks before the BaaBaas and I think it’s something the players will need and should look forward to. We’ve committed to the fact that next week there’ll be a few hard sessions. The following two weeks after that we’re going to work our bollocks off.

“We will use the weeks before the Barbarians match to make sure we’re hard and strong. We don’t want to go into the off-season soft and come back softer. We want to go in hard and fit, have a good refreshing four-week break or set players up to go to international camp in really good nick and then come back stronger.

“It will be a fairly demanding period over the next three months.”

Hard work is a good place to start for a team looking for an edge, an inner confidence to look to when things begin to turn sour. Though lack of effort was not the root cause of Ulster’s failings this season.

Les Kiss Source: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

“To be honest, we haven’t cracked it. We don’t know what it is. There’s something missing,” admits Trimble, glimpsing a bit of hope that this season has been full of lessons which can potentially be put to use come September.

“When we get it I’ll let you know what it is and how we achieve it, but there are very fine margins between winning and losing at this level. Unfortunately we’re on the wrong side of it at the minute. We’ll have a look at it and try to make sure we kick on.

“Potentially, when you look at sides who’ve had a disappointing season — maybe Munster last year, Leinster the season before that — it doesn’t take much for them to click into gear and kick on. Potentially, I don’t want to put words into mouths, but they might say that experience was necessary to bring them on. Hopefully we’re going through that at the minute and we’ll look back and say ‘we needed to experience this disappointment to kick on and learn things from it.’”

The alternative, the prospect of another stretch of sickening Monday reviews, is tough to get excited about. That sort of mood only sends the trajectory of confidence one way.

“The tendency is that one week you’ll say: ‘lads, we have to be really hard on ourselves’ and then confidence maybe takes a dip and you say, ‘right, flip, let’s start enjoying training again’ and you go through this cycle.

“How do we break this pattern? When we do, winning becomes a lot easier. In the past, when we’ve had seasons when we’ve won 13 in a row, you didn’t have to think about it. You’re not coming in every Monday morning and soul searching. You just do the same thing and you have momentum.

“If it was anywhere near a close game, we won it. It was just a habit and now it’s gone the other way.”

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