December defeat by Connacht ends gloomy year for Ulster Rugby
THERE was little in the way of festive cheer for Ulster as their 2017 came to a hugely disappointing end with a humiliating 44-16 PRO14 defeat to Connacht in Galway, piling more pressure on under-fire director of rugby Les Kiss.
The Australian described his team's display as the worst in his two-and-a-half year tenure and he will be looking for vast improvement in the New Year's Day encounter with Munster at the Kingspan Stadium.
Earlier in the year, Ulster failed to get out of the group stages of the competition in its previous guise as the PRO12 for the first time since 2012.
To compound the sense of underachievement, an away loss to the Exeter Chiefs in January signalled the team's exit from the European Champions Cup although back-to-back wins over Harlequins have revived hopes of progression in the current season.
Ulster began the year with a 16-3 PRO12 loss to the Scarlets and a subsequent 31-19 defeat in Exeter.
Six days later, there was more disappointment when a 26-22 home defeat to Bordeaux-Begles left Kiss's men bottom of Pool 5.
February at least saw an upturn in fortunes as Ulster racked up six straight PRO12 wins to leave themselves in play-off contention.
However, a 24-24 draw with Cardiff Blues at the Kingspan followed by a 22-20 away defeat to Munster and a 24-10 loss to the Ospreys in Swansea all but ended any chance of advancement.
Ulster needed not only a huge bonus-point win over Leinster in their final game of the regulation season in May but a thumping victory for the Scarlets over the Ospreys and a 73-points swing in the process.
It was never going to happen and, instead, the inter-pro game, which Ulster won 17-13, was dominated by Ruan Pienaar's emotional farewell.
The South African scrum-half, whose seven-year stint in Belfast had been ended when the IRFU refused to allow his stay to be extended, struggled to hold back the tears after the game.
Number eight Roger Wilson, making a record 221st appearance in the white shirt, marked his final game before retirement with a try as the curtain came down on his career and Ulster's season.
The Leinster game was also the last for two members of Kiss's backroom team, head coach Neil Doak and forwards coach Allen Clarke.
Kiss brought in a new team of assistants for the new season, after showing Doak and Clarke the door.
Former all-Black and Leinster assistant Jono Gibbes took over the reins from Doak while ex-Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel also joined the set-up and Kiwi Aaron Dundon, who made 49 appearances for Leinster in his playing days, was appointed scrum-coach.
Shortly before the new season got under way, ulster were rocked by news that two of their most influential players, Irish internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were to go on trial for rape charges they deny and both were relieved of their rugby duties pending the outcome of the case.
Ulster brought in 19-times capped Australian international Christian Leali'ifano as a short-term replacement for fly-half Jackson while several other new signings were made ahead of the new campaign.
Former Leinster and Connacht player John Cooney had the unenviable task of filling the number nine jersey vacated by Pienaar.
Springbok back row Jean Deysel joined from Natal Sharks after a loan spell with Munster and prop Schalk van der Merwe arrived from the Southern Kings, who along with the Cheetahs, were to add a South African dimension to the PRO14.
Ulster opened their campaign with a 42-19 comeback win over the Cheetahs which was to be the last appearance of the season for South African international flanker Marcell Coetzee, who had produced a barnstorming performance in the backrow alongside compatriot Deysel, who was named man-of-the-match.
The 26-year-old Coetzee, who has played only five games for Ulster in the past two seasons, broke down with a recurrence of a knee injury which required further surgery, ruling him out until next summer.
Deysel, who will return for the Munster game, previously had not played since October due to injury and Jared Payne has yet to line out this season due to recurring headaches.
Cooney received the individual accolade in an unconvincing 21-14 win over Benetton in Treviso a week after the Cheetahs' game.
A 27-20 home win over 2016 champions Scarlets followed and Ulster then defeated an under-strength Dragons 52-25 before falling to an unexpected 27-23 loss to Zebre in Italy.
Kiss's men then won a scrappy home game with Connacht 16-9 in their last encounter before starting their European campaign with Wasps at the Kingspan.
All Black Charles Piutau, who will be joining Bristol next season, playing against his former club, set up tries for Jacob Stockdale and Stuart McCloskey which ultimately sealed a 19-9 win over the English side.
However, the following week, Ulster were thrashed 41-19 by La Rochelle in France in a game which saw Andrew Trimble become the province's most-capped player.
Rory Best, who has played only twice for the province this season due to injuries, clocked up his 200th appearance the following week in Belfast.
But another error-ridden display saw Leinster spoil the Ulster and Ireland captain's celebration with a well-deserved 25-10 win.
Ulster's defensive frailties were again exposed as it took a last-gasp try from Bristol-bound Robbie Diack to get his team out of jail in a 43-36 away win over the Southern Kings.
After a break for the Autumn internationals, Ulster were again in stuttering form as Trimble's 77th minute try, converted by Leali'ifano, saw them edge out Benetton 23-22 in a game in Belfast that the Italians did not deserve to lose.
Ulster then tossed away a 12-point lead against the Dragons at Rodney Parade and Leali'fano again was the saviour as his late try salvaged a 32-32 draw.
All was forgiven -temporarily at least - by the increasingly impatient Ulster fans when the team produced its best display of the season in a tremendous 17-5 European win over Harlequins in a blizzard at the Stoop, with Stockdale's first-half try and four penalties from Cooney sealing the deal.
Cooney contributed 27 points in the return fixture a week later in which Ulster won 52-24 with tries from Pienaar's replacement, Craig Gilroy, Piutau, Alan O'Connor and Trimble.
However, last Saturday's record defeat to Connacht saw the year end in anti-climax, ruining Darren Cave's 200th cap after an abject collective display which he described as 'not worthy of the shirt'.
Ulster's set-piece again let them down as the westerners totally dominated up front and out-scored Kiss's men by six tries to two, casting more doubt on the Australian's future in the post with 18-months of his contract still to run.