Les Kiss admits Pro12 league campaign is toughest he has witnessed

Ulster’s position is ‘relatively clear-cut’ as they prepare to take on Leinster

Ulster head coach Les Kiss during training ahead of their Pro12 clash with Leinster. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ulster head coach Les Kiss during training ahead of their Pro12 clash with Leinster. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Heading into the penultimate round of matches in the Guinness Pro12, the Ulster director of rugby, Les Kiss, described it as the toughest league campaign he has witnessed. Noting how all bar the Dragons still have European qualification and/or playoff places to play for, Ulster’s position is relatively clear-cut as they prepare to host the leaders, Leinster, at a sold-out Kingspan Stadium this Saturday.

Whereas Kiss acknowledged the three teams above them, Leinster, Connacht and Glasgow, are vying for home semi-finals, Ulster are seeking to ensure a place in the playoffs with victory in their final two matches, although with a last-day trip to the Ospreys, anything less could leave them vulnerable.

“For us to get a home semi we’d need a couple of teams to drop something this week,” admitted Kiss. “If we win this weekend and a certain result goes our way then we probably can’t be knocked out of the top four.”

“The picture changes and throws up another story line. If we get the win, we’re in a really strong place,” he said, although noting that Connacht and Glasgow have still to meet, added: “For Leinster, even if they get a losing bonus they’ll feel they’re in a good place but a win for them puts them absolutely in the box seat so we know they’ll be desperate. Our focus is get the four points and if we do that, it’s mission accomplished.”

Under pressure

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel that expectation to get it done or believed that it can’t be done. To say anything less I’d be underselling the ambition of Ulster and the ambition of the players, especially the players that have got two or three years left of their opportunity here.”

“We’re still in the hunt and it’s a really tight, tough competition. To be able to get a win this weekend would be special but we know it won’t be easy. We’re at home, that makes a big difference in this league, but against Leinster nothing is guaranteed unfortunately.”

Kiss spoke at length of Leinster’s defensive strengths, or as he put it their “guts”, and their ability to fill the line and pick their moments to poach. Interestingly, the player he first singled out was the departing Ben Te’o.

“You have to take your hat off to what Ben Te’o gives them. He certainly leads the line for them. He gives them a bit of thrust and momentum. He’s certainly a player that’s also blossomed again this year and generated interest overseas obviously and is heading away, but he’s been delivering for them and that’s been a good plus for them.”

Naive enthusiasm

Garry Ringrose

“He [Te’o] just takes the space that’s here and believes in it, and he’s a damned good character,” said Kiss, who also described Josh van der Flier as “an exceptional find” for them. “So that youth in and around the experience they have, has worked well.”

The experience comes in the shape of Johnny Sexton and others, and typical of an interpro derby, his match-up with Paddy Jackson will be intriguing. Kiss again spoke glowingly of his 24-year-old outhalf.

“I think Paddy has been exceptional this year to tell you the truth . . . I look at him as a general . . . He’s up against one of the best players Ireland have put out in recent years and it’ll be a nice tussle but it always comes back to a simple thing, a number 10 can be so much better if one through eight are doing their job. Both players, Sexton and Paddy, if it’s not going well they can work their side out of a tight spot. Look, it’ll be interesting that’s for sure but I do think it’ll start up front.”

Bearing that in mind, Ulster have been hit by the loss of Nick Williams, whose shoulder injury requires surgery, meaning alas, that has played his last game for the province.

Tommy Bowe experienced a mild knee reaction following the recent game against Zebre and he will miss this Saturday’s game, as will Wiehahn Herbst, although he is expected to be back within two weeks.

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