Ulster Rugby: Gibbes’ troops really under the spotlight as crisis point looms

Edinburgh's Duncan Weir (22) is mobbed after kicking a drop goal to win against Ulster during Friday night's Guinness PRO 14 match at Kingspan Stadium. Picture by Brian Little
Edinburgh's Duncan Weir (22) is mobbed after kicking a drop goal to win against Ulster during Friday night's Guinness PRO 14 match at Kingspan Stadium. Picture by Brian Little
  • Ulster shy on resources

Friday night’s defeat to Edinburgh has left Ulster facing a difficult final section to their Guinness PRO14 campaign.

For the first time this season - having suffered only their second home loss in the Celtic competition - Ulster dropped out of the Championship play-off spots in Conference B.

Edinburgh’s last gasp drop goal to take a 17-16 win saw the Scots move level on points with Ulster, but overtake them in third place by virtue of having won more games.

Both are eight points behind second placed Scarlets who lost to Leinster on Saturday night, a 20-13 win seeing the Irish Province move three points clear at the head of the section.

Missing out on the play-offs for a second successive season would be a massive blow for Ulster, but crucially their place in the European Champions Cup for the first time in the competition is now in serious jeopardy.

A fourth place finish would leave Jono Gibbes’ squad facing a play-off for the final seventh PRO14 spot in Europe’s Premier event.

As it stands in Conference A, with Cheetahs in third place, Ulster would be facing fifth placed Connacht for that place in Europe.

While the second tier Challenge Cup still has some quality sides competing in it, the attraction to quality players is not the same.

The race for the final placings is fare from over at this stage. There are still six games to play, but Ulster only have two of those at home.

It is not quite crisis point yet, but given how Ulster are coping during the Six Nations period without key players and now facing some serious injury scenarios in the backline, there is genuine concern.

The performances from Ulster this season never reached the expectation of the fans and the fixation for two-thirds of the season with pointing the finger at director of rugby Les Kiss and having him removed ignored a lot of reality.

There is no doubt there may have been some issues regarding Kiss’s ability as a director of rugby, but Ulster simply do not have the resources of other clubs.

And that was evident on Friday night as a resurgent Edinburgh eventually put them to the sword.

Yes, an 82nd minute drop goal was a gutting way to lose the game, but respectfully the Scots deserved to win.

Even with the concession of two tries, Ulster’s defence had been exceptional, one of the reasons why they were still in the game right at the end.

That effort did take its toll and Edinburgh have shown a gritty determination in the their previous games, winning their last three in the final minutes.

There is no doubt the loss of outhalf Johnny McPhillips in the first half - as well as Craig Gilroy - did not aid Ulster’s case.

It meant a reshuffle in the backline and scrumhalf Johnny Stewart is well off the mark at this level.

McPhillips’ injury is thought to be significant, so he is unlikely to be available for this weekend’s vital away game at Scarlets.

Peter Nelson is almost certain to start in the pivotal role and there can only be the hope that Paul Marshall will be fit again.

Another expected to return to the side will be international winger, Andrew Trimble.