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'It's probably as dark a changing room as I've been in. A lot of soul searching is needed'

Billy Burns shares his side’s disappointment after their gut-wrenching Champions Cup exit.

THE ATMOSPHERE INSIDE the away changing room at Kingsholm on Saturday evening was a sombre one as the Ulster squad digested what had just unfolded.

ian-madigan-dejected-at-the-end-of-the-game Ian Madigan dejected. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With six minutes to play, the province held a ten-point lead over Gloucester having manufactured an excellent comeback by scoring 24 unanswered points and notching four tries to seemingly keep their slim Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final hopes alive.

But in a horror finish, it all slipped away. Ethan McIlroy’s deliberate knock on of Louis Rees-Zammit’s pass to Kyle Moyle conceded both a penalty try and a yellow card, and then, with the final play of the game, George Barton scrambled over for the winning score for the hosts.

The reactions when Barton went over said it all. James Hume and Ian Madigan on their haunches. Tom O’Toole with his hands on his head. More than one Ulster forward flat on the turf. Gloucester shirts flooding in to celebrate.

“It’s probably as dark a changing room as I’ve been in,” admitted Ulster fly-half Billy Burns of the scenes afterwards.

In that dark changing room, the post-mortem began early. Head coach Dan McFarland spoke of tightening up mentally in the wake of their collapse as the province start to piece together just why their European challenge is over after two games.

While a week ago, against Toulouse, they were undone by two pieces of individual brilliance, on this occasion they have nobody to blame but themselves. Going into the final minute at Kingsholm they were in possession of the ball on the edge of the Gloucester 22 and still contrived to lose the game.

The quarter-final dream is now over, that much is certain. While mathematically it may still be possible, the chances of all the dominoes falling exactly the way Ulster need them to would be something akin to a Christmas miracle.

“We’ll take huge positives from not being too far away, but equally we know we’re much better than that,” added Burns, who was playing against his former side and scored Ulster’s opening try.

“Number one, we don’t like losing at home last week and number two, we don’t like backing defeats up away from home, especially when we’re in a position to win it.

“A lot of soul searching (is needed) and a lot of looking back and looking at ourselves. We’re fortunate to have some huge interpro games coming up over the Christmas period. No better way to bounce back.”

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billy-burns-runs-in-a-try Billy Burns in action. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ulster head to Connacht this Sunday in the first of their interprovincials, followed by a clash with Munster at Kingspan Stadium on 2 January – which will go ahead despite the new restrictions imposed by the NI Executive – and then a trip to Leinster a week later.

Having suffered a first loss of the season and then followed it up with their second only a week later, there is an urgency to ensure that what had initially looked like a blip doesn’t become a slide. What had originally looked like an intriguing clash in Galway now takes on a much greater importance for the visitors.

“We have to stay tight. I know that’s said a lot after games that are lost, but we haven’t been far away. We can take positives from that. Little moments have let us down and most of the little moments have been in our control,” insisted Burns.

“We know how good we can be, we’ve proved we can play at this level, we’ve proved that we can see big games out. We’ll go back, no pointing fingers, and the great thing about this squad is everyone’s humble, everyone’s got their feet on the ground and everyone wants to improve.

“We’ve never come into these games thinking we’re the finished article. Obviously we’ve been unfortunate to lose the last couple of games but it’s time for guys to experience these lows before to pull these young guys through.

“Listen, it’s hard to look at now, but we’ll be better for this in the future, I can guarantee you that. We’ve learned huge amounts these last couple of weeks and that’ll propel us forward.

“If it is the end of the road in this competition then so be it, we’ll be very disappointed obviously, but we’ll use that in the PRO14 and then into the big games come the end of the season.”

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