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I know we can mix it with the best this season: Gilroy

Flying wing insists Ulster no longer fear travelling to France and impressive domestic start has enhanced belief of a strong Euro bid

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 15/10/2016

Moving forward: Craig Gilroy believes Ulster have what it takes to make a big impact in European competition this season
Moving forward: Craig Gilroy believes Ulster have what it takes to make a big impact in European competition this season

As one of Ulster Rugby's new breed, Craig Gilroy admits the side's latest journey to France does not carry the same daunting weight it once did for the province.

Les Kiss' side kick-off their Champions Cup campaign against Bordeaux-Begles tomorrow afternoon (1pm kick-off) with their poor record across the Channel now a thing of the past.

In years gone by, trips to face Gallic opposition proved such a persistent stumbling block that an otherwise meaningless friendly win at Bayonne back in 2012 was seen as reason for celebration.

Since Gilroy became a regular, however, it's been all change. While he lost to Clermont, who Ulster play again home and away in December, on his first trip to France, since then they have won four of their last five with the only reverse coming when an under-strength side were sent to then-European champions Toulon.

"When I first played over there, we'd never won. It was always a bit of 'is this going to be the first one?' every time we went but, now that it's happened, it's a wee bit easier," said Gilroy.

"It's a monkey off our backs with Castres away being the first one a few years ago.

"Since then we've done it a fair bit and that gives us a lot of confidence, but it's not something we'll bank on.

"Bordeaux are a very impressive side and they've won three in a row. They're playing with confidence and they're unpredictable with the way they throw the ball around. It keeps you on your toes."

There has no doubt been a fair amount of that around Kingspan Stadium this week after an under-par performance against Connacht in the PRO12 last Friday brought a first defeat of the campaign. A visibly frustrated Kiss spoke in the aftermath with Gilroy admitting the Director of Rugby had been frank in his assessment.

"Kissy is hard but fair," he said. "We had an honest reflection of the game and went through everything we needed to. We righted a lot of wrongs in training and had a really good week.

"It was a game we could have won and it was frustrating for us as players. It's disappointing to see the coaches after, how they reacted, but it's us on the pitch and it's us that caused it.

"There were some positives there, fighting back and getting to where we did, but certainly we left a lot behind us."

With the back-to-backs against high-flying Clermont looming ominously in the distance, tomorrow's contest in the Stade Chaban-Delmas takes on gigantic weight.

Ulster haven't won their European opener since 2013 with many seeing tomorrow as a straight head-to-head between rival Irish out-halves Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan.

Gilroy is more focused on the team battle and his own meeting with the vastly experienced Australian international Adam Ashley-Cooper.

"Since he returned this season, Jacko has been unbelievable. He's a joy to play with, and it's great to see the way he's improving and getting better in every game," said Gilroy.

"I played with Jacko at school and he has come on so much year after year. He had a fantastic summer tour with Ireland and has carried that form right into this season.

"There's a friendship but a competitive rivalry there (between him and Madigan) but it's not just about one guy, it's about 15 and we need the whole team.

"I've been doing homework on Ashley-Cooper and he's on fire. He's running in tries for fun and he's doing well. He's a very experienced player who has done unbelievably well for his country.

"I think he was one of the top scorers at the World Cup so it'll be a great experience for me to have a crack at playing against him."

When it comes to Gilroy, European memories will always inevitably drift back towards his slaloming solo score against Munster in the 2012 competition but in the last two years Ulster have never seemed farther from a return to the final.

But with Kiss now settled into his role as Director of Rugby - the Australian had only just arrived back from the World Cup in time for last season's tilt - and big-name additions in the shape of Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee, although both are currently sidelined, Ulster enter Europe in a more confident frame of mind than in recent years.

"We lost our last game but we're top of the PRO12 and we take a lot of confidence from that. We have to keep reminding ourselves how good we are and what we can do. We need to front up physically more than anything," added Gilroy.

"We need to be physical and get go-forward ball. We've the personnel to be devastating. The backline we have, no matter who you pick, you boast a lot of big names. It's important to get the first win in this competition to get the ball rolling."

Recent seasons have shown Ulster that it's virtually imperative.

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