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Ulster still waiting and hoping on Coetzee and Payne

After Zebre defeat, Les Kiss looking for major improvement against Connacht

Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee in action against the Cheetahs, the last time he saw action for the province. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho

The injury-dogged Marcell Coetzee, Jared Payne and Craig Gilroy remain major doubts for Ulster as they prepare to face Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday night, and thereby heal the wounds inflicted in last Saturday’s defeat to Zebre before hosting Wasps in their opening European Champions Cup on Friday week.

Ulster have been limited to glimpses of the kind of ball-carrying ballast which could give so much of their running game a focal point by a serious knee injury to Coetzee which is still proving problematic.

Having played four games last season, Coetzee made a barnstorming start to this campaign in their handsome win over the Cheetahs. Indeed Ulster are unbeaten in their five games with him in the their ranks. But since then he has not been seen, while Payne not has played since headaches cut short his Lions tour, and Gilroy has been sidelined with a back injury.

Nor could assistant coach Jonno Gibbes shed much light on their estimated returns.

“It’s a constant with them [Coetzee and Payne], and Gilly as well. With Marcell and JP it’s week to week. We’re trying to do the best we can to get them on the field, but JP’s is one of those that isn’t an easy thing to work through. It is what it is with him. We’d love to add quality like that as quickly as we could but it’s week to week management with him.

“Marcell we’re trying to get some understanding with him as to what tolerance he’s building up and we’re hoping to get a more definitive answer at the end of the week – we’ll see where he’s at. Gilly, he’s starting to build back into the squad stuff but he’s probably a few weeks away as well.”

Ulster are still hurting and smarting from that surprise first defeat of the season away to Zebre.

“Between missed tackles and turnovers we made 47 errors,” reflected director of rugby Les Kiss. “You can’t afford to do that in any team, in any game.  We’ve got to have our heads on and have our concentration up a little bit better.” 

Unforced errors

While both Kiss and Gibbes remain aggrieved by the highly contentious decision of TMO Neil Paterson to disallow a try by Wiehahn Herbst, Kiss did pay tribute to Zebre’s performance.

“We came to a try decision that was disallowed late on. From certain positions it wasn’t a penalty and should have been a try, but the game, if we managed it earlier, mightn’t have been that close. So we have to accept our medicine in that area but also it would be remiss not to mention what Zebre did. They played well. Their line speed was very good, they put our skills under pressure and we made these forced errors and unforced errors. So you have to recognise that Zebre played a pretty good style of rugby as well.”

Nor was Gibbes going to use an unscheduled detour via Antwerp, which denied them a captain’s run the day before, as an excuse.

“I do not think dropping the ball has anything to do with an aeroplane. I can’t even say we were flat physically or anything like that because we simply did not execute basic things. We had no rhythm, we got no continuity, we did not put them under any pressure and we lost control of the game.”

Gibbes is also mindful that Connacht produced their best performance of the season to date in last Friday’s thrilling defeat away to the Scarlets.

“Defensively they were hungry and against Scarlets we have seen their quality first hand and Connacht took them all the way to wire away from home.

“Looking through the Connacht game from the weekend, their hunger in defence – it was their best defensive performance – they will take confidence from that. They will be building towards a big one come Friday so we have been pretty thorough with the Zebra 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 is Connacht. They always keep you honest. You have got to be really physically ready.

“Where they are building to I think they have played Glasgow and Cardiff in pretty horrific conditions and then they have better conditions in Llanelli and I thought they showed a helluva lot more than they had in those previous two games. Obviously the Kings was in the middle of that as well, but I think it is a derby game, so it should sharpen our focus.”