GUINNESS PRO12: Ulster seek vital win to stay on title trail

Ulster's Nick Williams
Ulster's Nick Williams

Only a win over Zebre on Friday night in the Guinness PRO12 at Kingspan Stadium (7.35pm) will be acceptable as Ulster look to keep their title bid going in the right direction.

Ulster director of rugby, Les Kiss, admits the performances in recent outings, particularly the back-to-back defeats to Scarlets and Cardiff Blues have been ‘unacceptable’.

The Irish Province moved to the top of the Guinness PRO12 table after scratchy wins over NG Dragons and Glasgow at home.

But they dropped to fourth place following the two straight defeats.

Facing Italian strugglers Zebre in Belfast offers a great opportunity for Ulster to secure the win they need to take them into a two week break in league action still in strong contention for the play-offs.

Defeat however would leave them potentially out of the running for a vital home semi-final, but crucially in danger of being drawn into a dog fight for a place in next year’s European Champions Cup.

“Every team goes through a rough patch and unfortunately we have been experiencing that,” said Kiss.

“But it is important to address it and we have been working on a number of things in training and discussing issues at our meetings.

“It is about being organised and doing things like taking ownership for what is in front of you when you have the ball.

“This is a big game for us and while I would not class it as a must win - it is crucial that we get another mark in the ‘W’ column.

“I cannot fault the guys effort, but sometimes that effort has been less than technically good with missed tackles, one on ones and our kick chase game has been out of shape.

“Each individual has to stand up and be responsible and take ownership of the work they do at any given moment.

“If we can do that it will multiply into a better team performance.”

During the two week break for most clubs, there are a couple who will be playing some outstanding games postponed for various reasons earlier in the campaign.

“Leinster and Glasgow will probably be in a different position when we return from the break.

“But then we have to play each of them after the break as part of a tough run-in.

“That is why we need to put ourselves in as good a position possible going into the break.”

Kiss accepts the expectation to win against Zebre should be big.

“That is something we do not want to hide from. When we play at this stadium we want people to come here and expect good things.”

Ulster were boosted by the return of Rob Herring from injury and he will captain the team again in the absence of Rory Best.

Herring is one of four changes tot he side which lost to Cardiff, with Kyle McCall and Ricky Lutton both starting in the front row.

Ulster: C Gilroy; R Scholes, L Marshall, S Olding, J Stockdale; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Herring (captain), R Lutton, P Browne, F van der Merwe, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams;

Replacements: J Andrew, C Black, A Warwick, R Wilson, S Reidy, P Marshall, S Windsor, D Cave.

Zebre: M Muliaina; G Toniolatti, G Bisegni, T Castello*, K Van Zyl; E Padovani, F Semenzato; A De Marchi, O Fabiani, D Chistolini; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (capt); E Caffini, J Meyer, F Ruzza.

Replacements: E Coria, G Roan, P Ceccarelli, G Koegelenberg, F Cristiano, L Burgess, I McKinley, U Beyers.